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Original Issue

Changing of the Guard Led by the suddenly mature Kobe Bryant, the rampaging Lakers seized a 2-0 lead over the Spurs in the Western finals

Kobe Bryant was standing in a hallway of a Sacramento hotel during
the Los Angeles Lakers' second-round playoff series against the
Kings when a toddler waddled toward him. "You're not quite ready
to play with the grown-ups yet," the boy's mother said as she
gathered him in her arms. Then she looked at Bryant, sizing up
his 6'7" frame. "And that young man is very grown up," she said.

Suddenly that seems to be the universal appraisal of Bryant,
whose maturity on the court is either thrilling or frightening to
behold, depending on your point of view. The San Antonio Spurs no
doubt have the latter perspective, especially after Bryant, the
Lakers' 22-year-old swingman, blitzed them with 45 points and 10
rebounds in Los Angeles's 104-90 victory in Game 1 of the Western
Conference finals last Saturday at the Alamodome. He was almost
as spectacular in Game 2 on Monday night, scoring 28 points and
handing out a game-high six assists in an 88-81 Lakers win--their
17th in a row, including nine in the playoffs, dating from April
1--that turned a series that was supposed to be an epic struggle
into a potential rout.

As the teams headed to L.A. for Games 3 and 4, San Antonio was
hoping that 6'5" Derek Anderson, the Spur best equipped to
counteract Bryant, would recover from his right shoulder
separation so he could play in this series, perhaps as early as
Game 3. Still, it's hard to imagine that even a healthy Anderson
would have reined in Bryant on Saturday. "I told Kobe he's my
idol," said Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal, Bryant's sometime
rival, who had 28 points and 11 boards in the opener. "He's
playing phenomenal. I think he's the best player in the league,
by far." Although not all of Shaq's declarations can be taken at
face value--as his supposed paramours Aaliyah, Cindy Crawford and
Venus Williams would attest--all indications are that this time,
he wasn't joking.

Indeed, after a string of virtuoso performances in the playoffs,
Bryant is no longer merely one of the NBA's new young stars; he's
the best of them, and he may be the finest all-around player in
the game. With all due respect for the prolific scoring of Allen
Iverson and Vince Carter in the Philadelphia 76ers-Toronto
Raptors series (box, page 42) and for O'Neal's domination of the
Portland Trail Blazers and the Kings in Rounds 1 and 2, Bryant
has been the most compelling act of the postseason. Through
Monday he was averaging 32.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists
in 42.8 minutes, and he's been equally effective on defense. His
harassment had the Spurs' guards struggling to make entry passes
to big men Tim Duncan and David Robinson in Game 1, and he threw
in a steal and a blocked shot--both of them spectacular--for good
measure. "I don't want to be known as a great scorer," Bryant
says. "I want to be known as a great basketball player."

At this rate he will also be known as a great postseason
basketball player, the most coveted reputation of all. Bryant's
ability to ratchet up his game in the playoffs is reminiscent of
You-Know-Who's. When Lakers forward Horace Grant, a former
teammate of Michael Jordan's, repeatedly referred to Bryant as
"number 23" after Game 1, it wasn't a slip. Although Bryant will
continue to improve--he may be five or six years from his prime,
for goodness' sake--there's suddenly far less talk about what he
could become than about what he already is. "Maybe he's still
learning," said San Antonio forward Danny Ferry after Game 1,
"but he already knows plenty."

Bryant's masterpiece on Saturday was Jordan-like in its seeming
effortlessness. He played 47 minutes and took 35 shots (making
19), yet he never seemed the slightest bit greedy or out of
control, as he sometimes has in the past. "His shots were coming
out of the flow of the offense," Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson
said. "He wasn't out there hunting for shot opportunities. The
opportunities were finding him."

Recognizing that the presence of Duncan and Robinson in the
middle would make it difficult for O'Neal to control the low post
as completely as he usually does, the Lakers spread the floor to
open lanes for their perimeter players, particularly Bryant. He
repeatedly pierced the San Antonio defense, and he finished with
authority once he reached the rim. During one third-quarter
sequence he dunked three times within three minutes, once with
both of the Spurs' 7-footers contesting the shot. "I'll take it
to the basket aggressively against anyone," Bryant says.

Throughout the playoffs Bryant has made his game a touch more
conservative without losing any of its electricity. When the
Spurs were making their final run in the fourth quarter of Game
1, cutting a 16-point advantage to 10, Bryant helped finish them
off with a flourish. First, he dunked an alley-oop pass from
Robert Horry for an 84-72 advantage. Moments later, he missed a
short jumper in the lane but sprung for the rebound and slammed
it in. The Alamodome crowd was still murmuring over that play's
degree of difficulty when Bryant blocked an Avery Johnson layup.
Finally, he drilled a three from the top of the key that gave the
Lakers a 96-81 lead and sealed the win.

Bryant has also shown the ability to modulate his game according
to the circumstances. Young stars such as Carter, Iverson, Kevin
Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Chris Webber are all the first
offensive option on their teams, free to look for their shots as
much as they choose. Not so Bryant, who has to read the way the
defense is playing O'Neal and decide whether to dominate or
defer. Whenever Shaq was on a roll early in the postseason,
Bryant was a willing distributor, much as he was in Game 1
against San Antonio, when the Lakers went inside early and often.
However, when Duncan and Robinson bottled O'Neal up a bit, Bryant
pumped up the volume on his own game, pouring in 12 points in the
first quarter.

Although they acknowledged Bryant's brilliance, the Spurs came
out of Game 1 feeling they had made things easier for him with
uninspired D. "We were way too slow in coming to help out on
him," Robinson said. "Kobe was on the perimeter, playing with the
ball and going nowhere. That's when we should have been coming
aggressively to help out and double-team."

But after wasting Duncan's 40-point performance in Game 2, San
Antonio had to be wondering if any amount of tinkering would help
against Los Angeles. "They create a pick-your-poison situation
for every team," Robinson said of Shaq and Kobe. "But we'll make
adjustments. There are a lot more chapters to this series."

That may be true, but the Spurs had trouble enough getting
through the first one, entitled "Kobe Grows Up." In a conference
final that was expected to be an intriguing mystery, Bryant and
the Lakers might have already given away the ending.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Air attackBryant went over, around and through the San Antonio defense for 45 points in Game 1, drawing comparisons with You-Know-Who.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Pummel horseO'Neal muscled in 28 points against Robinson in the opener, then racked up 19 in L.A.'s Game 2 win.