Lakers-Nuggets: 'Melo and Kobe's Battle Goes Back to Beijing

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IMay 25, 2009

DENVER - MAY 23:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks to pass the ball around Carmelo Anthony #15 and Nene #31 of the Denver Nuggets in Game Three of the Western Conference Finals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 23, 2009 in Denver, Colorado. 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 Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

They battled relentlessly again for a third straight contest. They locked arms, traded baskets, and lived at the charity stripe.

For both stars, the Western Conference Finals represents the final mile to redemption.

For Carmelo Anthony, the series has validated his ascension to superstar status. After leading the Denver Nuggets to the doorstep of the franchise's first ever NBA Final, 'Melo is no longer the braided, defenseless loser who scores a lot of points in meaningless games. 

For Kobe Bryant, this much tougher than expected return to the conference championship round has all but erased the indignity of that Game Six massacre.

131-92 no more.

The big, bad Boston Celtics are out of the playoffs, and should the Lakers win two more games and advance, no one will pick Dwight Howard or LeBron James to clobber a Bryant-led team again. His Lakers will be favored to be on the winning side of that lopsided score.

This standstill, tiring to watch battle began in China. Or better yet, it began in 2004, before the Wukesong Gymnasium had been constructed.

Anthony glided into the pros on the crest of the winning wave. A McDonald's High School All-American and a national champion at Syracuse University, how could this guy lose on the next level?

When he fell to third, the Nuggets eagerly snatched him and figured they were getting the kind of superstar who could bring Denver the Larry O' Brien Trophy.

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His NBA tenure commenced with great promise.

Anthony scored 41 points in a March tilt against the Seattle Supersonics, setting the franchise scoring mark by a rookie.

He won the Rookie of the Month award six times, also a Denver franchise record.

Then, he quarterbacked the 43-39 Nuggets into the playoffs. This a year after a disastrous 17-65 campaign.

The Minnesota Timberwolves eliminated the Nuggets in five games. His first taste of losing seemed like a mere right of passage.

However, that dream of instant superstardom fell hard that summer. To reach that next level, he would have to carry the boulder of defeat across the Rocky Mountains and a few oceans.

His first detour: Athens, Greece.

Anthony headed to the Summer Olympics that year with the best collection of basketball talent in the world. He joined Rookie of the Year LeBron James, Tim Duncan, and Allen Iverson among others for the chance at a gold medal.

Team U.S.A. stumbled and settled for the humiliation of a bronze. A third place finish for most countries would have been satisfactory, but for the athletically superior Americans, it was a disgrace.

The Argentines hijacked the United States' run of Olympic dominance, and few athletes on that bronze ball club took more of a beating for it than Anthony. He averaged 2.4 points and 1.6 rebounds.

He wasn't ready.

The country's coaching staff had erred in trusting such an infantile basketball player to represent his homeland.

The critics forgot about the last-minute mass exodus of All-Stars amid terrorist threats and injuries that forced Larry Brown to rely on youngsters like Anthony. The final result at those games seemed to squash that excuse.

James suffered some whacks to his character after the Athens atrocity, but his seemingly scripted legend spared him the worst.

Anthony then battled a pair of marijuana possession charges and had to distance himself from a video, Stop Snitchin', that threatened violence against Baltimore police.

A close friend took responsibility for the drugs in an affidavit and his participation in the video bore little consequence.

Still, even Anthony had to wonder if he was doing irreparable damage to his fledgling career.

The San Antonio Spurs would twice eliminate the Nuggets in the first round, in 2005 and 2007, en route to a pair or titles. The Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers would do the honors the other two years.

In 2006, Anthony threw a punch at Knicks' guard Mardy Collins in an ugly brawl at Madison Square Garden. He earned a 15-game suspension for his role in the fracas.

The experiment alongside Allen Iverson didn't turn out so well, either.

To remake his shattered image and remind doubters why the Nuggets selected him ahead of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, he needed to succeed at something bigger than himself or his career.

He needed a gold medal redo.

Fittingly, he joined Bosh, James, and Wade on that quest for self-actualization.

This time, with Bryant at the forefront and Jason Kidd as the sage mentor, the United States would not fail. The "Redeem Team" smacked around the rest of the world like pinatas and finished the tournament with a smashing victory in the gold medal game.

As Anthony joined 11 of his countrymen in accepting one of sports' highest honors, even Abraham Maslow could be heard cheering from the stands.

No two professional athletes needed Beijing more than Bryant and Anthony.

After a 39-point shellacking at TD Banknorth Garden secured banner No. 17 for the main tenant Celtics, many wondered how Bryant could lose so thoroughly in such a meaningful contest.

Greatest of all time?

As good as Jordan? 

Paul Pierce outplayed Bryant for most of the series and nabbed Finals MVP honors.

Bryant had failed in the Finals for the second straight time.

His 2004 was a lot worse than Anthony's.

Though a miracle shot with .4 on the clock from Derek Fisher would help boost the Lakers past the defending champion Spurs, its karma would not propel them to a title.

Bryant's private feud with Shaquille O' Neal became public discourse. Rape allegations, unfounded as they were, assaulted his previously sterling reputation.

He seemed to fight his own demons as much as anyone in a Detroit Pistons uniform in the 2004 Finals. Led by Chauncey Billups, the Pistons netted the title in five games.

What happened during that summer of angst is history. Jerry Buss and Mitch Kupchak shipped O'Neal to Miami, leaving a ravaged Bryant in the rubble of a dynasty.

Bryant first patched up his salty image with an MVP season in which he trusted his teammates and helped them barrel through a murderous Western Conference.

It helped that his teammates included Pau Gasol, Fisher, and an improved Lamar Odom instead of Smush Parker and Kwame Brown.

He was helpless against the mea culpa Celtics, and that made his leadership at the Olympics more important.

As his shoot-from-everywhere heroics lifted the United States out of the proverbial basketball Dumpster, his own career took a much-needed PR shower.

Late in the Fourth Quarter of the Lakers' 103-97 win at the Pepsi Center on Saturday night, Bryant bagged a stepback triple with J.R. Smith in his face. He scored 41 points and owned the Fourth Quarter with spin moves and drives, a dunk, and clutch free throws.

It was hard not to remember him doing the same to every defender on the Spanish National Team in August. Rudy Fernandez posterized Dwight Howard, then nailed a three-pointer to cut Spain's deficit to two.

Mike Krzyzewski called timeout.

From there, Bryant swooshed five straight shots and carried the world's best team to the sweet finish line.

Everything he had done to lead his country in its gold medal charge, he was doing to the Denver Nuggets in Game Three of the conference finals.

This nail-biter of a series represents the ultimate crossroads.

Bryant wants to win his first championship sans O'Neal, and the understated but ultra-valuable Billups again stands in his way.

Anthony has grown from a selfish punk to a complete star. Even if his team should be up 3-0, no one laughs at 'Melo when he talks about winning in the playoffs.

No one should.

When this series ends, maybe someone can teach the Nuggets how to execute an inbounds pass. Phil Jackson's famous 42-0 mark cannot fail him now.

When the Lakers close the deal, 'Melo will head into the offseason as a different sort of loser. The kind that lost to a better team with the best player on the planet instead of a malcontent.

Anthony has learned from his transgressions, and it shows. He poured in 39 and 34 points, respectively, in the first two games. He defended like it was important and made the right pass when he could not find an acceptable look.

Most importantly, with his team down 14 in Game Two, after choking away the opener, he demonstrated poise under pressure. The Nuggets stormed back to win 106-103.

His season ended last year with "I quit." It continues now with "not so fast, L.A."

Anthony struggled through a 4-of-13 shooting performance in a nauseating Game Three giveaway, but even at his worst, he was at his personal best.

A 4-of-13 brick fest in previous years meant a 20-point loss, deflection of the blame and the sting of cowardice.

An example of Anthony's growth: with his team clinging to a tenuous four-point lead at the half, he told ESPN's Doris Burke the Nuggets needed to play smart and that "we made a boneheaded play" with a late technical foul. That "smart" and Anthony can now exist in the same sentence says a lot.

Blame it on Billups' stewardship if you want, but give the exhilaration and euphoria of Beijing some credit, too.

Anthony is a winner by his own design.

Moments of the first three games indeed could have taken place in China. Pau Gasol's presence in the middle completed the flashback.

With a new license for all that comes with stardom, 'Melo has but one frustration.

In this dream, Kobe plays for the other squad.

Bob Marley didn't write "Redemption Song" in one take.