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Bryant, Williams are mutual admirers

Times Staff Writer

Admittedly, Kobe Bryant doesn’t throw up praise toward his opponents as frequently as he does jump shots.

But when the topic of the Utah Jazz’s 23-year-old point guard, Deron Williams, comes up, the L-word starts to flow.

“I love him,” Bryant recently said of Williams. “He’s one of my favorite players in the league.

“I love his toughness. I love his competitiveness. I love his skill. I don’t throw accolades around too frequently. I really love him as a basketball player.”

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It’s a mutual admiration society dating from last summer, when the two spent three weeks as teammates on the USA basketball team that won gold in the FIBA Americas championship and qualified for this summer’s Olympics in Beijing.

Each is the cog that revs his team’s engine: Bryant, 29, the Lakers’ superstar and the league’s most valuable player with a knack for big shots and stellar play, and Williams, a young point guard who seamlessly fit into Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan’s pick-and-roll scheme with forward Carlos Boozer.

And great players play even better in the playoffs.

In the Western Conference semifinal series that pits them against each other, Bryant is posting a team-high 33 points and 7.4 assists, up from his MVP regular-season averages of 28.3 and 5.4.

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Williams, who is seemingly improving from game to game in this series, is averaging team highs of 22.6 points and 11 assists, compared with 18.8 and 10.5 in the regular season.

When informed of Bryant’s comments, Williams sent them right back.

“I have a lot of respect for his game. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen,” Williams said. “He’s just a great competitor. . . . Just seeing how he works every day, it’s inspiring.”

Williams said he had always heard about Bryant’s relentlessly competitive nature, but seeing it as a USA teammate offered a different perspective.

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Meanwhile, Bryant liked the energy and natural playmaking abilities that Williams brought to the court over the summer. He witnessed Williams’ dishing and delivering to his teammates, picking up an assist almost every couple of minutes he was on the court.

Williams saw a veteran player at the top of his game with an insatiable appetite to stay there. He noted that Bryant arrived a day before the rest of the USA team in Las Vegas to begin his routines in preparation for the games.

“Until you see it up close and personal, you never really know,” Williams said. “Any time a guy was scoring on an opposing team, he wanted to guard him. He always wanted the toughest assignment. That’s just his nature.”

Bryant described Williams in a similar way. “He enjoys pressure as much as I do,” Bryant said.

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It’s still uncertain whether the two will be teammates again in Beijing.

Williams is expected to be fighting for a spot against three other talented USA point guards: New Orleans’ Chris Paul, Detroit’s Chauncey Billups and Dallas’ Jason Kidd.

It’s a crowded race, and a tough personnel decision looms for U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski, but as Williams said with a smile, “I’ve never been cut from a team before.”

Bryant and Williams may be teammates again in the near future, but in tonight’s Game 6 in Utah, with the Lakers up 3-2, they will certainly revert to foes.

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Said Williams: “I’ve got friends across this league, but if you step on the court, we’re enemies for those 48 minutes.”

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jonathan.abrams@latimes.com


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