Kobe Bryant had it all Friday night, the chance to play with Shaquille O'Neal and the chance to do his thing without him. He had the ball in his hands in crunch time. He had the crowd chanting his name.
After O'Neal left because of a strained calf muscle in the third quarter, it became the Kobe Show.
We've seen it before, and seen him come through so many times before. This time it was different, because there are so many story lines.
For one, is Bryant's right knee strong enough to carry him, let alone a team? There are times -- such as the missed first-quarter dunk when it doesn't appear so.
The other subplot is how Bryant's solo flights will play with the three other superstars (O'Neal in particular).
Then you wonder how it will factor into his decision about whether or not to leave at the end of the season. Throw in the criminal trial proceedings that could supercede all of this and it was high drama at Staples Center.
The sad thing is O'Neal and Bryant had been playing as well together as at any time in their careers. The best highlights from the Lakers' victory in New York Wednesday came from Bryant passing to O'Neal for dunks. They hooked up on a couple of similar plays in the first quarter Friday night.
But without O'Neal in the fourth, and with the Lakers locked in an unexpectedly close game with the Bulls, it was Bryant all alone.
He took 11 shots in the fourth quarter, making six. He was the only Laker to attempt a field goal in the final seven minutes. But with no O'Neal and with Payton and Malone feeling their way through the triangle offense, Bryant had his teammates' blessing. They gave him the ball and cleared out.
"More than I would have liked them to," Laker Coach Phil Jackson said.
He might have been the only one questioning it. Unlike the Memphis game, when Bryant shot the Lakers out of it, there wasn't any grumbling in the locker room.
"I think tonight was the right time," Payton said.
"Some ... " he stopped himself. "You guys say some nights is the wrong time, but tonight was the right time. He did what he was supposed to do, he got us a win."
So the Lakers averted their first truly inexcusable loss and kept their Staples Center record perfect at 6-0. If the Lakers are going to be a so-so road team, which has been the case so far, it's even more important that they handle business at home.
Whenever the Lakers go on an extended trip, Jackson sets a target record. For example, he wanted them to go 3-1 on their trek to Milwaukee, San Antonio, New Orleans and Memphis. (They finished 2-2).
He never sets such goals for a long homestand, such as the one the Lakers started Friday. They get five in a row at Staples Center, but Jackson didn't respond to a couple of requests for what would be an acceptable record. Instead he lapsed into cliches.
"As long as we take one game at a time, I think it's OK," Jackson said. "You win a quarter at a time."
The Lakers seemed to be following that approach in the first quarter. They outscored the Bulls, 27-21, and only a run by Chicago in the last four minutes made it that close. Then the Bulls scored 34 points in the second.
At one point the Bulls made eight of nine shots -- and they tipped in the shot they missed. They scored on 11 consecutive possessions.
It was the same list of problems for the Lakers. Inability to shut down guards on the perimeter. Poor rotation. And absolutely no weak-side help.
The Lakers got hurt by would-be Lakers and had-been Lakers. Scottie Pippen, who had exchanged some mutual flirtation with Jackson as he entered free agency this summer before he returned to the Bulls, showed he still had a few defensive tricks as he knocked away passes and blocked a shot.
How would the Lakers do it?
Four minutes into the fourth quarter, they appeared to find their answer: defense.
Payton got over to Donyell Marshall in the corner in time to get a hand in Marshall's face as he launched a three-point shot.
On Chicago's next possession, Bryon Russell bodied up Pippen and forced him to take a jump shot that missed.
Payton rewarded Russell at the other end with a pass for an open three-point shot that Russell converted.
Then it was time for Bryant to take over.
He fired up a quick jump shot from the corner that missed. On the next possession he made a baseline jump shot. Then he spun and made another jump shot over Eddie Robinson.
Then he got the ball on the wing, isolated against Robinson. The crowd started to buzz. The Bulls got an idea of where this was going as well and two additional defenders headed his way. So Bryant wisely whipped a pass to Karl Malone, who was fouled and made two free throws.
Bryant missed his next three shots, appeared to be on the verge of losing it -- especially when he picked up a technical foul for arguing with the official during a timeout. But he scored another five points, and the Lakers took advantage of Chicago's inability to finish.
The Bulls lack that skill.
Bryant has it. Still.
J.A. Adande can be reached at email@example.com