NBA Playoffs 2012: Kobe Bryant and Los Angeles Lakers' Quest for Title 17 Begins

Victoria SterlingCorrespondent IMay 3, 2012

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 27:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers in action against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena on March 27, 2012 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Every so often, out of nowhere, Kobe Bryant will surprise everyone and tell us exactly what he’s thinking.  Or what was really going on.

Typically, during the playoffs, Bryant’s answers are brusque and his comments are terse.  It’s not really a time for chit chat or reflection. 

The Lakers' playoffs are their own season here in Los Angeles. 

And when they roll around, Bryant is all business.  It’s championship or bust for this organization. 

And then out of the blue, amazingly, Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski publishes this riveting piece about the Mamba. 

This is required reading for any Lakers fan.  It’s short.  I’ll wait.

I have been cautiously optimistic during this first round of the playoffs.  I have also been waiting for the other shoe to drop.   Perhaps I’m still gun-shy from the meltdown last year.

With all the new personnel, new coaching staff and another year of mileage on No. 24, how far can this team really go?

Well, the Lakers set the tone with their opening game at Staples on Sunday against the visiting Denver Nuggets (103-88 and free tacos!!).

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

The Lakers came out with a focus and determination I have not seen from them since the 2010 playoffs where they refused to lose to the Boston Celtics.  The Lakers played a smart, disciplined game. 

They didn’t try to do too much and even though Kobe had a rough 2-10 first half, they stuck to the game plan.  Which basically boiled down to Andrew Bynum (with apologies to Marshawn Lynch) going into full beast mode. 

The result:  a triple double for Bynum.   To say nothing of a fan base that looked at one another thinking….maybe this is all coming together at the right time?

You can’t imagine the jubilation in town after that opening game.  The Clippers are great, but the Lakers still own this town.  And Kobe Bryant is their undisputed leader. 

Which brings us to Tuesday night’s Game 2 at Staples.  If you’ve ever been to a Lakers home game, it’s kind of unbelievable how much the crowd supports Kobe. 

Missed shots are greeted with a sound from the crowd that is simultaneously disappointed and encouraging, somehow conveying,  “Darn…good try.  Don’t stop shooting.  You’ll get the next one.” 

And when he inevitably starts hitting shots, the crowd goes absolutely nuts.  And then the momentum and the energy starts feeding on itself and building.  Sometimes I think that is why Bynum wants to stretch his wings and shoot more. 

That feedback from the crowd has got to be better than any other high there is.  Which is not to say that the fans don’t give Bynum love.  They do.  It’s just not quite the same intensity. 

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 01:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers drives on Corey Brewer #13 of the Denver Nuggets during Game Two of the Western Conference Quarterfinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 1, 2012 in Los Angeles, Califor
Harry How/Getty Images

All of which is a preamble to state that Kobe had a lights-out game on Tuesday night.  Denver made the decision to single cover him and Kobe absolutely made them pay. 

I think Kobe has been pacing himself the second half of this season, so we haven’t seen one of these “I will not be denied” dominant performances in a while.  The score was closer (104-100), but the outcome was never in doubt.

Which brings me back to the article I linked to above.  Wojnarowski gets Kobe reminiscing about the awful playoff run last year and it is eye opening.  All Lakers fans knew Kobe’s knee was in bad shape last year.  But I don’t think any of us knew just how bad it was. 

The kind of thing where just walking was excruciating.  And this guy is playing playoff basketball—against players like Chris Paul and Dirk Nowitzki.  The absolute sheer force of will required to perform at that level is almost unimaginable. 

What is also new is Kobe reveals his regret that he couldn’t perform better in Phil Jackson’s final season.  We’ll see if the ZenMaster responds to that.  But it’s a safe bet he’ll say something like, “Are you kidding me?  That guy gives 110 percent every night.  He has nothing to feel bad about.” 

(And then drive off in his Audi!) 

Anyway, nobody has a better finger on the pulse of this team than Kobe, so if he likes how things are, that’s good enough for me. 

So what will happen in Denver?  Lots of people are predicting sweep.  Not me. 

I think the Nuggets are going to fight.  And they could easily win one or both of the next two games if the Lakers slack off in transition defense or especially if one of the Big Three gets into foul trouble.  Both things to keep an eye on. 

But at least this year, the Lakers seem to understand that they have to battle their way through each series.  They can’t phone it in like they tried to do last year until the Hornets scared them and then the Mavericks made short work of them.

This new outlook was perfectly epitomized by the t-shirts the Lakers gave out for Game 1.  The slogan on the front read in big purple block letters:  “One Game At A Time."