Bryant 'rises' to occasion during NBA playoffs

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LOS ANGELES --- Among Kobe Bryant's myriad talents is what's known to opposing coaches simply as the "rise-up."

Kobe Bryant's 23-foot jumper on Saturday capped a 37-point performance that sent Los Angeles back to the NBA Finals. 
  Chris Carlson/Associated Press
Chris Carlson/Associated Press
Kobe Bryant's 23-foot jumper on Saturday capped a 37-point performance that sent Los Angeles back to the NBA Finals.

That's when Bryant has a defender blanketing him on the perimeter, obstructing his vision and physically preventing him from driving -- yet Kobe simply leaps high enough and leans far enough forward or backward to release a perfect jumper anyway.

Bryant 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, and Bryant punctuated it with a pat on Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry's derriere.

"I said, 'Good defense,' to Grant," Gentry recalled with a rueful smile. "(Bryant) said, 'Not quite good enough.' ... I thought Grant was going to block the shot. That was a fall-away 3-pointer with a hand in your face, off balance. You know, that's who he is. That really is who he is."

Bryant is enjoying arguably the most impressive playoff run of his career, and not because his numbers are any larger than in a previous postseason. He has scored 30 points in 10 of the Lakers' past 11 games -- and moreover, he has willed a team with an injured center, two more inconsistent starters and little bench help beyond Lamar Odom into its third consecutive NBA finals, starting Thursday night at Staples Center.

The surprising Suns would have had an above-average chance to knock off the defending champions if Bryant hadn't been at his absolute best. He averaged 33.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 8.3 assists in the series while making 52.1 percent 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, who stretched out his arms in imitation of an airplane on the way back to the bench. "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 likely will get another four days off to rest for the finals. He hasn't practiced much at all this spring while recovering from several injuries, but after six previous trips to the NBA Finals, Bryant knows how to pace his body for the playoff haul.

Although he claimed he didn't care who the Lakers played in the finals, Bryant sometimes isn't exactly forthcoming about either his injuries or his passions. It's tough to believe Bryant isn't thrilled by the chance to cap another stirring playoff run with a revenge victory over his franchise's biggest playoff rival, which sent Bryant home from the finals two years ago.

"It's a sexy matchup," Bryant said. "We're looking forward to this challenge, looking forward to the test."


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