Kobe watching his team grow up

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LOS ANGELES - Beyond the big shot, which was followed by the bigger shot, which was made possible by a bunch of little plays, each of which was big, lies the most significant thing — the big picture.

The Lakers, apparent twotime losers Sunday but now one victory away from playoff advancement, are aging faster than bananas do. “I told them we matured about 10 to 15 years today,” said Kobe Bryant, the team’s unquestioned dynamic leader, the NBA’s unparalleled clutch performer. “We did a lot of growing up in this game.”

Players grow up; coaches just age. And this 99-98 elevator drop certainly put time on Phil Jackson, while taking years from Mike D’Antoni.

The Lakers won despite being down five points with eight seconds left in regulation. They won despite being down one — Phoenix’s ball — with seven seconds left in overtime. They won despite a lack of field goals by Bryant and then because of two field goals by Bryant.

But only after a Smush Parker 3-pointer, two unlikely — unprecedented is more like it — moments of MVPswallowing defense and that most basic of basketball victories, the controlling of a jump ball.

So continued the Lakers’ ridiculous run, one that defied forecasting, one that six weeks ago never would have been pondered, even by Jack Nicholson. Once 90 percent Bryant and 10 percent hope, the Lakers are now balanced and wellrounded and winners of 14 of their past 18.

When it ended Sunday, because of the overwhelming improbability of all this, Bryant pounded his chest, screamed into his teammates’ faces and, later, announced, “This is so much fun; we’re just having a blast.”

Bear in mind he has done this before, repeatedly, with much more riding than Game 4 of the first round.

“The difference is that in the past people expected us to win,” Bryant said. “Today, nobody expects us to do anything. Nobody thought we’d be in the playoffs or do anything against the Suns.”

Whoa there, that isn’t entirely true. The Lakers and Clippers were the most popular picks to beat higherseeded teams in this first round. And the Lakers were favored in both of the past two games.

But Bryant’s general concept is correct, particularly when comparing these Lakers with those Lakers, the group that knew none of their seasons should end until just days before summer began.

These, however, aren’t your Shaq’s Lakers. These Lakers are the more subtle things, such as Parker overcoming a miserable shooting afternoon to contribute, Lamar Odom sustaining his effort and focus and Luke Walton winning the season’s biggest jump ball in overtime.

“I knew I just had to get the ball to Kobe,” Walton explained, “just get it in his area and let him do what he does.”

Bryant retrieved the ball near the midcourt sideline, started a five-dribble charge that crossed inside the top of the key, launched himself from about 17 feet away and . . .

“I had flashbacks,” Devean George said. “It felt a little like the past.”

Said Jackson: “I felt very confident he was going to make that shot. He already had it measured up.”

“That was the most fun shot I’ve ever hit,” Bryant said. “That shot was pure excitement.” Then he offered this chilling assessment of the day’s most intense moment: “It felt routine to me.”