x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Bryant ready for big jump

Lakers star gearing up for NBA finals and the in-form player recalls how tough the Celtics were in championship round two years ago.

Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers guard, is enjoying arguably the most impressive play-off run of his career.
Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers guard, is enjoying arguably the most impressive play-off run of his career.

LOS ANGELES // Among Kobe Bryant's inimitable talents is what is known to opposing coaches simply as the "rise-up". That is when Bryant has a defender covering him on the perimeter, obstructing his vision and physically preventing him from driving - yet Bryant simply leaps high enough and leans far enough forward or backward to release a perfect jumper anyway.

He rose up against Grant Hill in the final minute of the Los Angeles Lakers' conference-clinching victory over the Phoenix Suns on Saturday night, putting his stamp on a 37-point performance that sent the Lakers into the NBA finals with a chance for revenge on the Boston Celtics. Even with Hill right in his grill, Bryant leaped up and away from the veteran forward and drilled a clinching 23-footer. The basket essentially clinched the Lakers' victory.

"I thought Grant was going to block the shot," said Alvin Gentry, the Phoenix coach. "That was a fall-away three-pointer with a hand in your face, off balance. You know, that's who he [Bryant] is. That really is who he is." Bryant is enjoying arguably the most impressive play-off run of his career, and not because his numbers are any larger than in a previous post-season. He has scored 30 points in 10 of the Lakers' last 11 games - and moreover, he has willed a team with an injured centre, two inconsistent starters and little bench help beyond Lamar Odom into their third consecutive NBA finals, starting on Thursday night in Los Angeles.

The surprising Suns would have had an above-average chance to knock out the defending champions if Bryant had not been at his absolute best. He averaged 33.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 8.3 assists in the series while making 52.1 per cent of his shots, repeatedly burning Phoenix for late-game baskets. As for the breathtaking shot that almost nobody else in the NBA can make consistently, Bryant is almost nonchalant about his ability to rise up when it matters.

"I just had to create a little bit of space," said Bryant. "I had a good look. Looks like a much tougher shot than it actually is. I got a good look. Got my legs underneath me. I was able to knock it down." Bryant has not practised much at all this spring while recovering from several injuries, but after six previous trips to the NBA finals, he knows how to pace his body for the two-month play-off haul.

Although Bryant claimed he did not care who the Lakers played in the finals, he sometimes is not exactly forthcoming about either his injuries or his passions. It is tough to believe Bryant is not thrilled by the chance to cap another stirring play-off run with a revenge victory over his franchise's biggest play-off rivals, who sent Bryant home from the finals two years ago. "It's a sexy match-up," Bryant said. "We're looking forward to this challenge."

There is another reason many expect Bryant to come out blazing against the Celtics: he did not play well two years ago in the finals, his first without Shaquille O'Neal by his side. He averaged 25.7 points and made 40 per cent of his shots against the Celtics, who finished off Los Angeles with an embarrassing 131-92 victory in Game 6. "Just looking forward to the challenge of it," Bryant said. "Last time we played them, it was a great learning experience for us. It taught us what it takes to be a champion."

* AP