LOS ANGELES -- Like any other precocious kid waiting for Christmas morning to open presents, Kobe Bryant can't wait for tonight to hurry up and get here.
However, this time, the wrapping doesn't come off a gift, but off Bryant and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers, who have been impatiently waiting nine days for the chance to defend their title, starting tonight against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
"Last year, all of this hoopla, it was very cool," Bryant said yesterday after practice at Staples Center. "Now, it's still nice, but it's like, 'OK, let's play.' You just can't wait for the game."
With a postseason like Bryant has had, you'd almost understand if he had flown the Sixers in just to get a game going. Bryant has been phenomenal at the time of year when reputations are forged: the postseason.
Bryant leads the team in scoring through the playoffs, with a 31.6 average, a half-point behind Philadelphia's Allen Iverson, the league's postseason leader. The Lakers' 6-foot-7 guard had 48 points in the series clincher against the Sacramento Kings in the second round of the playoffs, and 45 points against the San Antonio Spurs in the opener of the Western Conference finals.
Bryant also leads Los Angeles in postseason assists, averaging 6.2, is second to Shaquille O'Neal in rebounds with 7.0 a contest and is tied with Horace Grant for second behind Rick Fox for the most steals at 18.
In the process, he has drawn the headiest of comparisons. His coach, Phil Jackson, who led the Chicago Bulls to six titles, has compared Bryant to Michael Jordan, the driving force behind the Bulls' title runs.
"I really didn't take any of it seriously," Bryant said. "Obviously, it's a huge compliment, but, more so, it's encouraging to know that I was doing the right thing to help our team win. I think that was more encouraging than anything. I'm just here trying to do what I need to do to help this team win, and that's it."
Perhaps the most meaningful compliment of the postseason has come from O'Neal, with whom Bryant allegedly battled for control of the team throughout the early part of the season.
In the midst of the Lakers' four-game blowout of the Spurs, O'Neal pointedly and repeatedly referred to Bryant as the best player on "all nine planets," and hasn't backed down from his grandiose statement.
"He is a player that went through a lot to try to get to where people would accept his game, accept his talent, and I think it was time to hand him that," O'Neal said yesterday. "Throughout the playoffs, he's just been playing so easy, playing so cool, letting it come to him. He's learned that this isn't tennis or track or any individual sport -- you have to play with five guys."
Indeed, for all the polish that Bryant's game possesses after five seasons, it is tempting to forget he is still two months short of 23, without a single game of college experience.
Sixers guard and former Temple star Aaron McKie, who played pickup games with Bryant as he grew up near Philadelphia, said he knew the teen-age prodigy had the physical talent to be special.
"He's a completely different player now," McKie said. "He was a raw talent. He was kind of frail. But I went away, came back the next year and he was completely different. His game started to mature."
But for all of the growth Bryant has undergone, the biggest and, for the Lakers' sake, most welcome change has come between the ears. His teammates say his recent marriage has matured him and he has blended more into the team concept.
"We always had a bond," said Lakers guard Ron Harper. "I was always on his side. I just had to say some things to him that he may not have liked to hear. It was a thing where I had to say them and he had to hear them. That was that. We hug each other all season long, and I was trying to show him things he needed to learn."
The maturation process has advanced to the point that Bryant and O'Neal now not only peacefully coexist, but also seem to enjoy playing together and are poised to take their place alongside some of the great Lakers' center-guard pairings, such as Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson.
"[With] Shaquille and myself, it's good because we can learn from the past," Bryant said. "We can learn from great players like Jerry and Magic, who are still there to talk to. But it's funny how that works out. It seems like there's always two dominant players here -- one is a guard and one is a big man. It worked out well back then, and, hopefully, it can work out well for us here."