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Bryant just won’t settle for second best

He awoke to the news that his beloved giant had publicly diminished him.

Kobe Bryant, who has said he loves Jerry West like a father, awoke to a Daddy Dearest.

“If I had to have somebody make a last-second shot, it would be Kobe Bryant,” said Jerry West, former Lakers general manager in an interview.

“But even though it’s hard for me to be objective, because I brought Kobe to Los Angeles, I do think LeBron has surpassed Kobe as a player.”

LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers has surpassed Kobe Bryant as a player?

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Bryant read it but didn’t weep.

The Denver Nuggets felt it, and did.

They weren’t just beaten, they were smothered, under two giant shoulders and one mammoth chip.

Although Bryant said he wasn’t offended by the slight, you sure could have fooled a roaring Staples Center crowd and its stunned guests as he carried the Lakers to a 105-103 victory Tuesday in the opener of the Western Conference finals.

Yeah, as so often happens in the spring, this night was about Bryant, pushing his weary teammates past an energized opponent hoping to sneak away with one on the road.

Jerry West can steal his status, but Bryant was not going to let the Nuggets steal this game, in ways we have seen so much, you can put them in a checklist.

Scored 15 of the Lakers’ final 23 points, leading them back from a seven-point deficit? Check.

“It’s crazy that you start to get used to it,” Lamar Odom said. “You get used to greatness.”

Had the game’s biggest assist on a double-teamed pass to Derek Fisher, who made a three-pointer in the final three minutes to give the Lakers the lead? Check.

“He has unbelievable will,” Trevor Ariza said.

Grabbed the game’s biggest rebound, on a missed J.R. Smith free throw in the final ticks? Check.

“He knows what this team needs, and he just does it,” Ariza said.

Sank the game’s biggest free throws, making six straight down the stretch? Check.

“He got more aggressive,” Denver’s Chauncey Billups said of Bryant’s trips to the line. “You don’t settle, you attack, that’s what great ones do.”

Covered the Nuggets two best players throughout the game, starting with Chauncey Billups and finishing with Carmelo Anthony? Check.

He switched to Anthony after Ariza, who was guarding him, picked up his fourth foul midway through the fourth quarter

Switched in typical Bryant fashion.

Said Coach Phil Jackson: “It was his idea.”

Said Ariza: “He came over to me and said he was guarding him.”

Bryant grinned.

“I had to go down there and wrestle with the bear, it’s part of my responsibility to the team,” he said.

He wrestled so hard, Billups scored one basket in the first half, while Anthony struggled to get open down the stretch.

“I had to dig a little deeper,” Bryant said.

He dug so deep, Ariza credited Bryant with Ariza’s soaring steal of Anthony Carter’s inbounds pass toward Billups with 29 seconds remaining and the Lakers leading by two.

“The play was for Carmelo, but Kobe had him covered, so they had to go to Billups, and I was there,” Ariza said.

Oh, and by the way, Bryant did all this after reinjuring the finger on his right hand at the start of the fourth quarter.

“No big deal,” Bryant said. “It popped out, I popped it back in, went to the bench to get some tape, got back out there.”

Overall, Kobe being “back out there” accounted for 40 points, six rebounds, and one sizable reminder.

You can have LeBron James on a quiet night in November, or a nationally televised Sunday afternoon in February.

You can have LeBron James on the insurance commercials and the up-close interviews and amid all that chalk above the scorer’s table.

I’ll take Kobe Bryant right now.

If LeBron James has indeed passed Kobe Bryant has a player, he has yet to touch him as a champion.

‘That’s not my goal, that’s not my mission,” Bryant said of being the best player. “My mission is to win a championship. And the debate of who is the best player, that’s going to go on . . . that’s not something I concern myself with.”

Bryant said he was not upset at West’s assertion.

“I love Jerry West to death, obviously everybody knows that,” he said.

But he admitted that he does have a rear-view mirror, and he does check it out, and it can be sort of interesting.

“I do enjoy the challenge of having another player come along to challenge me for that top spot,”’ he said. “‘That’s always fun.”

I’ll take LeBron James during the five months of the NBA season when it is fun.

I’ll take Kobe Bryant right now, because he is all about right now

“It was a gut check for us,” Bryant said late Tuesday night.

Once again, his guts won.

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bill.plaschke@latimes.com


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