Lakers' hopes hinge on Kobe being super - NBC Sports

Lakers' hopes hinge on Kobe being super
Bryant faces an uphill battle for his sixth ring - but if anyone can pull it off, it's him
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Kobe Bryant's Herculean challenge for the playoffs will be toÿtoughen upÿPau Gasol, left, while encouraging young guys Devin Ebanks, center, and Jordan Hill, right, to seize their moments, writes NBCSports.com contributor Michael Ventre.
April 27, 2012, 8:04 pm

The summer tentpole movies are approaching. Usually they are big budget affairs that often involve a superhero who is faced with staggering obstacles and preposterous levels of adversity.

First up, Kobe Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers.

That's right, Kobe might as well don a body leotard, a cape and a mask, because what he will be asked to do in the upcoming NBA playoffs is not much different than the kinds of tasks presented to The Avengers, Batman, Spider-Man and others of that colorful ilk. In his case, he'll have to transform the Lakers into a team capable of winning a championship.

It seems unlikely that he'll be able to pull a Superman, reverse the Earth's rotation, turn back time, and change these Lakers into one of their previous championship teams, because that might mean he'd have to try to get along with Shaq again.

But the challenge remains Herculean. Kobe will have to stoke the fire under Andrew Bynum, but make sure he doesn't go postal like Metta World Peace. He'll have to keep MWP peaceful - assuming he gets to play again this season (he's suspended for the first six games of the playoffs). He'll have to remind Pau Gasol that you don't have to be mean, but you do have to be tough. He'll have to help Ramon Sessions raise his game under pressure; tell Steve Blake to keep shooting; encourage young guys like Jordan Hill and Devin Ebanks to seize their postseason moments; and work serenely with coach Mike Brown.

On Sunday, the Lakers outlasted the Oklahoma City Thunder at Staples Center in double overtime. Kobe was stupendous down the stretch, which made up for his struggles earlier, and for the fact that World Peace got tossed and later suspended for a thoughtless elbow to James Harden's head.

Yet it didn't appear as if Bryant discovered the long-term solution to the threat of the Thunder, and other young and athletic clubs like it. It only felt as though Bryant was holding up a bridge long enough for his teammates to get across it before he let it go. He'll have to perform larger and more astonishing feats from here on out.

Because he has won five championships and lusts for a sixth, it's understandable that Bryant strains to look at his current situation with optimism. He knows winning it all is technically possible. He realizes that other teams in the West like the Thunder and Spurs, and maybe the Grizzlies and Clippers, might be better positioned because they're eager, confident and hungry. But he still has the moxie of a gifted upstart with no limits to his ambitions.

First and foremost, Bryant is still the best pressure scorer in the NBA. His shooting percentage may make you cover your eyes in horror some nights, but he's also capable of nailing giant shots when his team needs them. He bears down in the final minutes of games, concentrates better, becomes more savagely competitive, and keeps his cool. That Kobe Bryant has not lost a step.

He needs help at the feeble age of 33, and he knows it. During a recent seven-game absence from the lineup because of a shin injury, he was able to examine how his teammates took on extra workloads in his absence. World Peace and Bynum were especially forceful, yet everybody seemed to pitch in. It allowed the Lakers to grow as a team, and it gave Kobe a fresh perspective.

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If you prefer to deal in likelihoods, these Lakers seem destined for a first- or second-round ouster. Then again, there is the Bryant factor.

There is something to be said for steel will in professional sports. It can often overcome the apparent advantages of the opposition. It's that same superhero notion: When all appears lost, somebody comes to the rescue.

In this case, Kobe will have to rouse his teammates the same way he did Sunday. A reliable vet like Gasol missed a triple-double by one assist in that game: 20 points, 14 rebounds, nine assists. Relatively untested kids such as center Hill (14 points, 15 rebounds) and Ebanks (eight points, five boards, good all-around defense and hustle) had breakout performances in the intense heat of a showcase game.

If this year holds to form, a team other than the Lakers will win the championship. Then the Lakers will somehow re-tool. They'll make a move or two to bring in some new talent in an effort to keep up in the Western Conference arms race. But this does not seem as if it will have a "Kobe's Sixth Ring" postscript. This looks more like it will probably have a "The Lakers Ponder An Uncertain Future" aftermath.

If there is one man in the NBA who can disrupt the power structure through word and deed, it's Bryant. It was there Sunday, in what many are calling the Lakers' most important victory of the year. Brown said it might have been "our best team win of the year." You could see it on the faces of Gasol and Blake, who Kobe embraced afterward as if the occasion were much more than just a positive outcome in the penultimate game of a lockout-marred regular season.

Granted, games inside Oklahoma City's gym are decidedly more daunting, not to mention louder. There are other teams, and other villains. World Peace will be unavailable for a while.

But as long as they can summon Kobe Bryant, the Lakers know the peril isn't as frightening as it could be.

Michael Ventre is a regular contributor to NBCSports.com. Follow him on Twitter http://twitter.com/#!/MichaelVentre44

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