Battle-tested stars are ready out West
LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant has barely touched a basketball in a week, giving his gimpy ankle and arthritic finger time to heal. That purplish, jagged gouge over Steve Nash’s right eye also should be one week less ghastly by tipoff time in the Western Conference finals.
Although both stars play a beautiful game, Bryant and Nash realize postseason basketball is rarely pretty, and they wouldn’t expect to escape the postseason without a few ugly souvenirs of the playoff grind.
After both teams got a week off to rest and recalibrate, the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers will attempt to reach their third straight NBA Finals when they take on the Phoenix Suns, starting in Game 1 tonight.
“It’s all part of the game, every part of it,’’ Bryant said.
Bryant has been cagey about his interest in revenge on the Suns for ending the Lakers’ season in the 2006 and 2007 playoffs, alternately embracing and downplaying it. Three years can be an eternity in the here-today, gone-later-today world of pro sports, but Bryant, Lamar Odom, and a few other Lakers from those teams have mentioned a passing interest in payback.
“I don’t forget much,’’ Odom said.
There’s no doubt about Phoenix’s motivation: Late in what’s starting to resemble a charmed season, Nash is hoping the Suns will get him to the NBA Finals for the first time.
The 36-year-old Canadian’s eye injury makes him look more like a hockey goon than a point guard, yet Phoenix finally has the talent and opportunity to reach the finals — if the Suns can just find a way past Bryant, Pau Gasol and the favored, playoff-tested Lakers.
“I’ve tried to enjoy it,’’ Nash said before boarding a bus yesterday for the Suns’ trip to Los Angeles.
Bryant and Nash have more in common than trophy cases full of MVP awards and All-Star honors. They share a creative approach to basketball influenced by the geometry of soccer and European hoops, constantly lending moments of beauty to the brutal course of an 82-game NBA season and a two-month playoff campaign — and leading to a mostly unspoken kinship.
“He’s a great passer, a great penetrator, great shooter,’’ Bryant said.
Yet as the stars’ battered bodies attest, sometimes playoff success is due simply to outworking, outmuscling, and outlasting opponents. Los Angeles has held teams to 41 percent shooting in the postseason, while smallish Phoenix has outrebounded its foes while outscoring them by nearly 10 points per game.