Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has spent most of his career looking in the rear-view mirror when it comes to players who could match his skill level on a basketball court, but that opinion took a huge hit following the 2011 NBA Playoffs.
There had always been whispers that Miami Heat stars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade had already surpassed Bryant as better players, but those whispers became shouts following Kobe and the Lakers' disastrous performance against the Dallas Mavericks.
The eventual NBA champion Mavericks ended any talks of a three-peat and unceremoniously swept the Lakers out of the postseason, partially due to a less-than-inspiring 22 points per game from Bryant in the series.
It was more than the points though with Bryant, because for the first time in his career, it appeared that he was physically incapable of lifting his body or his team when it really mattered the most.
Many people assumed that Kobe had finally fell victim to Father Time and the rest of his career would be downhill from that point.
ESPN and the TrueHoop network even went as far to rank Bryant seventh on its list of the NBA's top 500 players, which seemed justifiable although it certainly raised a few eyebrows.
Well, Bryant's play so far during the 2011-12 season has raised a lot more eyebrows, and he has mostly shattered any doubt that he is still a top-five player.
And those assumptions that Wade and James have already jumped over Kobe as a player?
Let's just say it's much easier to make an argument for James.
Bryant leads the entire NBA in scoring and he also averages more minutes, points, rebounds and nearly the same number of assists as Wade.
Granted, it's easy to get lost in what has been a historic, MVP-type season by James, but that shouldn't overshadow the point that Bryant has produced better numbers than Wade and he's had more overall impact as well.
Wade has certainly played a significant role in Miami's success this season in a Scottie Pippen sort of way.
There may be a few people who feel Miami is still Wade's team, but James' performances have shattered that myth and it has become apparent that the Heat will only go as far as James' broad shoulders can carry them.
Bryant is unquestionably the main man for Los Angeles, and he may have proven to Wade that he is still the NBA's top shooting guard as well on Sunday afternoon.
The Lakers beat the Heat 93-83 behind 33 points from Bryant, who beat Wade early and often on offense, while limiting Wade to 16 points on the defensive end.
Bryant set the tone by scoring 18 points in the first quarter, and the Lakers led from wire to wire while securing their first victory over the Heat since James and Chris Bosh came to town.
Speaking of Bosh, I know Miami fans will point to his absence as the reason for the Heat's loss in Los Angeles, and they may have a point.
But unless Bosh was going to spend some time defending Bryant, his presence probably wouldn't have affected Bryant's performance much.
This match-up was all about Kobe and D-Wade, with extra emphasis due to Wade's concussion-rendering, nose-fracturing hard foul on Bryant during the 2012 NBA All-Star game.
Kobe insisted there were no hard feelings after that game, but he sure looked determined to prove that Wade's hard shot during a scrimmage game hasn't slowed him down.
Bryant has scored at least 30 points in three consecutive games since donning a protective mask over his face, which is only two less than Wade's total of 30-point games for the season.
I know scoring doesn't mean everything, but when Kobe is greater or equal to Wade in every other category of significance, what other metric can a person use to say that Wade is the better player right now?
Time will eventually end the debate as to who is the better player, since Bryant's days as an elite NBA player are coming to a close, but as Bryant has shown so far it definitely will not happen this season.