Twenty-three times Sunday, the Utah Jazz left Kobe Bryant wide open.
Twenty-three times, the bumping, bruising Utah Jazz stood still and just let him shoot.
Twenty-one times, Kobe Bryant scored.
Twenty-one times, he jabbed a 10-foot sword into a puffed-out chest.
And basketball folks still have the nerve to call it a free throw?
Not here. Not Sunday. Not Kobe.
The final score in the first game of the Western Conference semifinals was 109-98, but the bottom line was the foul line.
Bryant got there because he was one of the few Lakers comfortable driving through the lane and into its resident giants Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur.
“It’s nice . . . it’s a chance to bang,” Bryant said.
Then, once at the line, Bryant tugged on his shirt and smoothed his stroke and just kept swishing them. Or was that the exhale of a Jazz team that wilted with each point?
“It was our biggest scoring threat of the night,” Coach Phil Jackson said.
Kids, please, do try this at home.
Bryant made a franchise playoff-record 21 free throws in 23 tries, including his first 18.
Most impressive, in the fourth quarter, with the Jazz closing to four points as Bryant made only one of six shots from the field?
He made six of eight free throws to clinch it.
The easiest of shots. The most exhausting of shots.
Bryant’s free throws wiped out the Jazz, which walked out with 17 more rebounds but one fat loss.
“When he’s getting to the line that much and making all those shots, it makes him very, very tough to stop,” said Utah’s Kyle Korver, shaking his head.
The simplest of tasks. The most inspirational of tasks.
Bryant’s free throws buoyed a Lakers team that spent most of the game doubled over in the pain and embarrassment of being pushed around on nearly every possession.
“This guy is not like a lot of great players, this guy is different, this guy has a will like nobody else,” Lamar Odom said.
You know what Odom calls him?
“Because he just sees and understands things,” Odom said.
The last time the Lakers advanced this far in the playoffs, the locals looked at the foul line and saw doom. They were so numbed by Shaquille O’Neal’s awful foul shooting, every trip to the line felt like a trip to the dentist.
Now, fans look at the foul line with delight. At the end of the game, because he will have his hand on the ball, Bryant will be the one taking those free throws.
“And think about it, in the entire league, is there anyone in a big situation who you would trust more?” Ronny Turiaf asked. “Today, like always, he was amazing.”
The most underrated of plays. The most imperative of plays.
Asked for his philosophy on foul shooting, Bryant made it seem so obvious, you wondered if he ever shared it with his big, um, buddy.
“It’s extremely important because they’re easy baskets . . . they’re open looks,” he said. “You go up there and miss two free throws, and sometimes that can change the momentum, it’s as good as a turnover.”
The Jazz also looked at it simply -- like it simply stunk.
Said Coach Jerry Sloan with a scowl: “They called them, he shot them, that’s fine, I can’t do anything about it.”
Said Andrei Kirilenko with a shrug: “What can we do? We can only stop fouling him.”
Yeah, then he shoots 90% from the field, and then what do you do?
It was a day when Bryant said the booming “MVP” chants meant more to him because they were real -- Mike Bresnahan broke the story for The Times on Saturday, with a formal announcement to come Tuesday.
“Yeah, it held more weight to it,” he said. “Before, it was like, ‘Thanks, but I’m not going to win it anyway.’ But now . . .”
It was also a day, however, when his MVP ability meant more to the Lakers because it was routine.
He not only led the team in free throws, but in free passes, his seven assists including one memorable alley-oop pass to Pau Gasol during their second-quarter surge.
“This is why he’s the MVP,” Korver said.
With about four minutes left in the game, Bryant’s toughness also inspired one notable fan.
A loose ball landed in the lap of courtside fixture Lou Adler.
It was only there for a moment, though, as Jack Nicholson leaned over and wrestled it from him.
When asked about the game’s physical atmosphere, Bryant smiled.
“If you’re an ‘80s fan or a basketball aficionado, you like that kind of stuff,” he said.
Memories of most Bryant fans go back only 11 years, but the Jazz brought all those memories back.
Do you remember the last time Bryant took shots this important in the playoffs against the Utah Jazz?
Yep, Game 5 of the 1997 conference semifinals, O’Neal fouls out, Bryant takes a final three-point attempt in regulation and a few more in overtime and what happens?
Airball. Airball. Airball. Airball.
“Yes, that was a horrible experience, thank you for bringing that up,” Bryant remembered Sunday with a grin.
Eleven years later, those wild plays have become steady plays, the flashiness has turned to functionality, the gauche has become the great.
Eleven years later, Bryant is no longer a child, he has one on his lap during Sunday’s postgame news conference, 2-year-old Gianna.
Eleven years later, the priorities have changed, and parents say the darnedest things.
Somebody wanted to know if Bryant’s adorable daughter could say, “MVP.”
“I don’t know,” Bryant said with a grin. “But I know she can say dee-fense.”
Bill Plaschke can be reached at email@example.com.
To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.