- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant wore a look of exhaustion yesterday, some 15 hours after a most amazing performance.

“I’m looking forward to sleeping all day,” he told reporters with a smile.

After flying back from a Colorado courtroom, Bryant scored 15 of his 42 points in the fourth quarter Tuesday night to lead the Lakers to a 98-90 victory over the Spurs and even their Western Conference semifinal series at 2-2.

With the Lakers about to board an airplane to San Antonio for Game5 tonight, Bryant had plenty of time for rest.

“He’s recovering today,” coach Phil Jackson said. “Hopefully he has the energy tomorrow to play.”

Oh, Bryant will have the energy. It seems he always does when it’s time to take the court.

“I love to play,” Bryant said. “I love to compete. I love to play at the highest level.”

For some reason, Bryant has played at his highest level each time he’s had to shuttle between the courtroom, where he faces a rape charge, and Los Angeles for a game the same night.

It’s happened four times — most recently against the Spurs when he scored from every conceivable angle in shooting 15-for-27 and didn’t commit a turnover.

Bryant pleaded not guilty to his sexual assault charge in Eagle, Colo., about 61/2 hours before the opening tipoff. He said he got about three hours sleep Monday night.

“I don’t know — I really don’t know,” he said when asked why he’s been able to excel in such situations.

There was Dec.19, when he arrived during the first quarter of a game against Denver and made a 20-foot jumper as time expired to give the Lakers a 101-99 victory.

There was March24, when he scored 36 points in a 115-92 win over Sacramento.

And there was April28, when he had 31 points and 10 assists with one turnover in a 97-78 triumph over Houston in the fifth and final game of the Lakers’ first-round playoff series against the Rockets.

Bryant acknowledged his performance against the Spurs was his best in a playoff game. And that’s saying something, considering his effort as a 21-year-old in the Lakers’ 120-118 overtime victory at Indiana in Game4 of the NBA Finals nearly four years ago.

Bryant scored 28 points despite playing on a bum ankle that caused him to miss the previous game. He did his best work after Shaquille O’Neal fouled out, scoring six of the Lakers’ last eight points.

“That was like a coming-out party for me,” Bryant said.

O’Neal ranked Bryant’s performance against the Spurs as one of the best he’s ever seen by anyone and No.3 on the Kobe-meter — behind the game against the Pacers and a 45-point effort against Seattle in January 2003 when Bryant made an NBA-record 12 3-pointers, including nine straight.

Assistant Frank Hamblen, in his fifth season with the Lakers and 35th as an NBA assistant coach, said he’s never seen anything like the latest Bryant gem.

“We had an incident with Michael in ‘97 — he was really ill,” Hamblen said, referring to former Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan, who made the game-winning jumper and scored 15 of his 38 points in the fourth quarter of Game5 of the NBA Finals against Utah despite being sick.

“He was physically ill,” Hamblen said. “The mental part that Kobe’s going through, nobody can imagine. He’s done that consistently when he’s come back from Colorado. There’s a lack of sleep involved, so much else. It’s pretty incredible.”

O’Neal called Bryant “the best player in the NBA by far” after Bryant scored 45 points in a 104-90 victory over the Spurs in Game1 of the 2001 Western Conference finals.

“Once again I have to title him as the best player ever,” O’Neal said after Tuesday night’s performance.

Said Bryant: “I appreciate it. For me, it’s just about contributing, trying to help us win.”

Jackson said Bryant’s most recent effort ranked high on his list of memorable games.

“I’ve obviously seen some performances similar to that,” Jackson said.

Mainly from Jordan when Jackson coached the Bulls.

“It didn’t surprise me,” Jackson said of Bryant. “The amazing thing is the energy involved.”

Back in San Antonio, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he wasn’t concerned about his team’s ability to rebound from two losses after 17 straight wins.

“They’re going to come back, they’re going to compete,” he said of the Spurs. “So will L.A., and the best team is going to come out of this. That’s the good thing — nobody’s going to slip through or nobody’s going to get lucky. The best team’s going to win the series.”

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