Love him or hate him, what you have to admire about Lakers star Kobe Bryant is his killer instinct. It's a trait all truly great NBA players -- Russell, Bird, Magic, Jordan -- possess. It's the reason Kobe has five rings and counting and Sunday's guest of honor at the Garden, LeBron James, is still bereft of jewelry.
The NBA is an alpha male league and no one is more alpha than Bryant in what Magic Johnson used to refer to as "Winnin' Time." Bryant might not be Michael Jordan, but he's as close as it gets. If Bryant came first then MJ would be compared to him, not the other way around. That's why as a Celtics fan you should fear Bryant, even at age 32, more than you fear LeBron in his prime.
Bryant has shown he can beat the Celtics when it matters most. James has not. Bryant relishes the opportunity to take on the Big Three and the history and mystique of Boston basketball, James is wary of it.
Bryant's indomitable basketball will was on full display last night against the Celtics at TD Garden. Usually, in the NBA when one team is injury-depleted as the Celtics were, the other team tends to take them lightly and lolly-gag through the game. The Celtics' 109-96 win in Los Angeles on Jan. 30 and the general hysteria -- or what passes for hysteria in Southern California -- surrounding the Lakers blase season ensured that wouldn't happen.
But it was obvious that the more handicapped the Celtics became by injuries and foul trouble the more determined -- and perversely delighted -- Bryant became in contributing to and putting them out of their misery.
With Nate Robinson leaving the game in the first half with a bruised left knee the Celtics had to take the bubble wrap off rookie Avery Bradley after Von Wafer picked up his fourth and fifth personal fouls in a 56-second span late in the third quarter. You could see Bryant practically salivating at the chance to take advantage of the rookie.
The quarter, during which Bryant scored 12 points, ended with Rajon Rondo guarding Bryant because Ray Allen was on the bench saddled with four personal fouls as well. Rondo forced a traveling call on Kobe and drew an offensive foul. But Bryant had already gone into Black Mamba mode.
"Well, once he saw there was a chance to win, Kobe was going to be Kobe," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "I mean, I think we knew that a week ago, and he also knew that we had foul problems on the floor, and he was aggressive."
Bryant scored 20 of his 23 points after halftime and scored eight of the Lakers' final 10 points on the way to a 92-86 victory. He hit four of six shots in the fourth quarter, going turnaround jumper, jumper, driving lay-up and then the parting shot, a crossover, step-back jumper over Allen that brought back memories of the game-winner he hit last Jan. 31 at the Garden
It was simply Kobe being Kobe, which is scary.
"I wanted to be more aggressive in the first half, but I didn't want to force it too much," said Bryant, who has gained tolerance for his teammates over the years. "I had to keep my guys in the game a little bit. The start of the second half I just forced it because the game wasn't coming to me, so I took it."
He took it because in his mind it belonged to him, like every game does. James is always waiting for someone to give it to him -- a big contract, a better set of teammates, a championship ring. James isn't even the best closer on his own team. That title would go to Dwyane Wade, whose on-court temperament is closer to Bryant's.
Taking logos and uniforms out of it, you have to appreciate the sheer brilliance of Bryant, especially because who knows how much longer he will be able to play at this lofty level. In his -- is this even possible? --15th season, Bryant is not the uber-athlete he once was. That was obvious last night when he failed to convert an alley-oop layup that four years ago he would have slammed home.
Kobe has never been an endearing or uniting presence like Jordan was during his days. He has always seemed colder, less accessible, more aloof. Perhaps, Bryant will get his due at the All-Star game in Los Angeles. Maybe, it will be a hoops homage of sorts to the greatest player of his generation. Or perhaps, Kobe will share the fate of many great artists. His work won't be truly appreciated until he stops producing it.
Barring a debilitating injury, Bryant, who has scored 27,135 points and counting, is probably going to score 30,000 points in his career. That puts him in rarefied air with his Airness and other basketball royalty. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Erving (combined ABA and NBA point total) are the only players in the history of professional basketball to do so.
But what drives Bryant isn't joining Jordan in the 30,000-point club. It's matching him in NBA titles. It would be all the sweeter for Bryant if to do it he has to face the Celtics one more time. Just like us, he craves a rubber match of this storied rivalry in the NBA Finals.
"The Finals? Yeah, of course. It's great. This is one of the best atmospheres, if not the best atmosphere to play in in the league today. This arena, everything that they do. It's a challenging place to play, but it's a lot of fun."
It's not a fait accompli by any means, not with how well the NBA's unholy trinity is playing in South Beach, and the way the clockwork Spurs are clicking in San Antonio.
But if you're a pure basketball fan pray that last night was not the last time the Celtics see Bryant and the Lakers.
Because it's a killer matchup.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.