Kobe Bryant shows many faces, but is this finally his time?


Kobe or not Kobe . . .

I’ve covered Kobe Bryant for 13 years and I may have used that line for 10 of them. I only hope I thought it up -- or, actually, adapted it from “Hamlet” -- as opposed to copping it from someone who got it from “Hamlet.”

With Kobe, that always was the question, too, and it hasn’t been answered to this day:

Is this his time, and if it isn’t, will it ever come?

Actually, it came in Game 3 of the Lakers-Magic NBA Finals, like a bolt of lightning . . . and went away before anyone knew what happened.


If Michael Jordan was the best ever, it was because of his consistency at a level no one had ever reached. Bryant goes to Jordan’s level all the time -- and beyond, where no one ever went before -- between dips.

If Jordan was a straight line across the top of the graph, Bryant is a wavy line, with the highs going off the chart, as in Tuesday’s first quarter, in one of the great 12-minute bursts anyone has ever played.

In numbers, it was 17 points with three assists, making seven of 10 shots.

In person, it was awesome.

“The greatest first quarter I ever saw,” ABC’s Jeff Van Gundy called it Wednesday.

“That shot he made in front of the Laker bench,” a four-point play after making a three-pointer as Mickael Pietrus, whom he faked in the air, fell into him, “that might have been the third hardest shot he hit in the quarter. For anyone else, it might be the best shot of their career,” Van Gundy said.

He continued: “That pass he made to Pau Gasol,” after going up to take a 20-footer and spotting Gasol open,” to change what he’s doing at the last moment? He made it look easy, but it’s not.”

Showing what brilliance gets you if you lose, the reaction Bryant got afterward was:

Aren’t you supposed to be the game’s best closer?

Actually, he is, but he flamed out after that first quarter Tuesday.

Having seen more faces of Kobe than we can count, here’s yet another: Kobe closing in on the most important achievement of his career.

Tuesday’s game was his career in a nutshell: a performance so brilliant it gives off sparks, but counts for nothing until he wins a title without Shaquille O'Neal.

Since that’s all that’s at stake now, it shouldn’t be a surprise if Bryant, who was poised when he was in his playpen, changed in Games 2 and 3.

In Game 2, he was frantic, abandoning the Lakers’ offense whenever Orlando took a one-point lead, sitting on the ball as if he were a hen trying to hatch it.

In Game 3, he was impulsive but brilliant -- at least at the beginning.

Wednesday, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson acknowledging the arrival of this latest Kobe -- “Oh, without a doubt” -- said he wanted his old Kobe back.

“He’s going to have to take his time and weigh that out and trust his teammates, there’s no doubt about it,” Jackson said. “We’ve told him, one guy’s not going to beat five. That’s something that doesn’t happen in these things.

“And he can’t always be the first initial option. He also has to be a guy that baits the defense and moves the ball ahead, as he did in the Denver series.”

Oh, and if they can hold the Magic under 60% shooting, that might help too.

In the bad news for the Lakers, that’s not as easy as it sounds.

Like the Lakers, the Magic is completely balanced, able to gash you up close and personal, or, in the words of the great Gen. Curtis LeMay, bomb you back to the Stone Age.

In the last 10 years, only a few teams have had great inside-outside games -- the Shaq-Kobe Lakers, the Shaq-Dwyane Wade Heat, the Tim Duncan Spurs -- but this series has two.

The Finals also has two adept coaches, even if Jackson leads Stan Van Gundy in titles, 9-0, which doesn’t mean anything unless Jackson hits Van Gundy over the head with one of his Larry O'Brien trophies.

Both coaches are loading up on Bryant and Dwight Howard at the defensive end, and telling them to move the ball at the offensive end.

The Lakers have one advantage: They have Bryant.

Howard is younger, almost a decade’s worth of experience behind, and plays inside, where he’s dependent on teammates to get him the ball.

Bryant is older, wiser and plays on the perimeter, where he can start with the ball in his possession, sense adjustments, and make changes that fast -- assuming he chills out.

Being Kobe, he can still rub the national media the wrong way, as with his recent stone-faced interviews, which, being Kobe, he carries to the nth degree.

Of course, if he wins this title, everyone will fall at his feet as if his coronation were on schedule, and they made plans to attend, long ago.

Actually, Bryant has put on fireworks shows that make Tuesday look routine . . . like the game in Portland in the spring of 2004, when teammates and everyone else were down on him for supposedly “tanking” -- that was the word that got in the papers -- a game in Sacramento.

Three nights later in Portland, he scored 37, tying it at the end of regulation with a three-pointer, which he shot horizontally, ducking under Ruben Patterson’s arm, winning it at the end of the second overtime with a moon-ball three he threw into the rafters over fast-closing Theo Ratliff.

“Like the 81 points he scored against [Toronto],” said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was the Jordan of the big guys, doing what he did every night.

“When Kobe plays at that level, he’s dangerous at any place on the offensive side of the court. Three-pointers, I mean, way out there three-pointers. Mid-range, drives to the hoop that he can make, acrobatic stuff. He can do all that. . . .

“I don’t remember [Jordan] ever getting to that level. But, on the other hand, he was very high all the time, and really enabled the guys around them.”

Now to see who Kobe enables in Game 4 and what new twists, if any, lay ahead in this long-running plot.