Paul PeszkoSenior Writer INovember 2, 2008


Okay, I know it’s just three games into the season. A little early to be picking the NBA’s MVP. Yes, but...last night’s game in Denver’s Pepsi Arena may have been a harbinger of things to come.

Last night, Kobe Bryant showed why he is Mr. Clutch for the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Nuggets, whom the Lakers had swept in the first round of last year’s Western Division Playoffs, had led the game since early in the first quarter.

Shooting just 38 percent from the field, the Lakers looked certain to suffer their first loss of the season with eight minutes remaining.

That was the point where Kobe Bryant stood up from the bench and took off his sweats.

Enter Mr. Clutch. In the corner beyond the arc and tightly guarded, his sights locked on the basket, Bryant went to work. Although he has become a consistent team player the last couple of years, there was no sense looking to pass off with your teammates barely hitting one-third of their shots.

Bryant, himself, hadn’t fared much better, hitting only seven of 17. But he is like an expensive wine. He just gets better with time. The later in a game, the better.

So, Mr. Clutch launched a 25-footer, and the Lakers had their first lead since early in the first quarter.

Inspired by their MVP’s return, the Lakers got a stop at the other end. Running down the court, Bryant asked for the ball again. This time he stepped inside the arc and hit a 17-foot jumper to extend the Lakers lead to 91-86.

Bryant then got a steal but missed an 18-foot jumper. What do you expect? You can’t make them all.

Then, after going one-for-two from the foul line, Bryant missed another jumper the next time down. That will happen even to the best of them.

But a closer doesn’t give up. A closer does everything he can to finish strong.

Knowing that his team was depending on him, Bryant drove around Anthony Carter twice to make layups, the last one putting the Lakers up by nine.

Bryant ended the game hitting four-for-four from the foul line and giving the Lakers their third victory in as many starts to keep them even with Western Division rivals, New Orleans and Houston.

Bryant wound up with 33 points in 33 minutes of play. He also had four rebounds, three assists and two steals. Decent numbers but not spectacular. At least not by Bryant’s standards. But numbers are not the story here.

If you think back to this summer’s Olympics and the Gold Medal game against Spain, it was Bryant who came in and gave that final push to put the Team USA over the top.

Sure other players like Dwayne Wade and LeBraun James may have scored more points, but when it’s crunch time and a team needs a strong finish, there is no better closer than Kobe Bryant.

Whether it’s beyond the arc or driving to the basket or from the foul line, when the game is on the line, you need a player you can depend on to make that big play.

Kobe Bryant is that player. That’s why he was voted MVP. And that’s why he is the leading contender once again this year.