-- All Kobe Bryant wanted to do was sleep.
The Los Angeles Lakers guard started Tuesday in an Eagle, Colo., courtroom, where he entered a not guilty plea for a sexual assault charge. From there, he caught a chartered flight to Los Angeles, hustled to Staples Center, where he took a brief nap before putting forth one of the most amazing performances in recent NBA playoff history.
Bryant, either unfazed or fueled by the day's events, scored 42 points, many on spectacular circus shots or with multiple defenders challenging him, to lead the Lakers to a 98-90 victory over the San Antonio Spurs to tie their Western Conference semifinal at two games apiece.
"I don't see how he does it," said teammate Shaquille O'Neal, who had an impressive game himself, scoring 28 points, grabbing 14 rebounds, blocking four shots and making 8 of 11 free throws. "He's a fabulous player, probably the best player that ever played the game, especially with all the stuff he's been going through. And it was a fabulous night for him, a memorable night."
Lakers forward Karl Malone: "It was unbelievable. I have said it before, for what a young man like him went through and to continue and do what he does is pretty incredible."
Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich: "Everybody is impressed with the way Kobe is able to compartmentalize. He's going through a tough time. You feel badly for him, for the young lady, for their families, the whole situation is just awful for everybody. You wish people didn't have to go through that. That's the reality of the thing and he's handling it the best he can. Doing it silently and with class and doing what he's got to do as far as the basketball court is concerned and the court in Colorado."
For Bryant, who said this might have been the best game he's ever played, rest was the only thing on his mind.
"I just feel numb right now. Just tired," Bryant said immediately after staging a performance that drew comparisons to Michael Jordan. "I want to get some sleep."
This was the fourth time Bryant had to hustle between judicial and basketball courts in Eagle and Los Angeles on the same day. It was the fourth time he led the Lakers to victory, too. Now, after dropping the first two games to the Spurs in San Antonio and having the pride of these Lakers challenged, Los Angeles has made this a best-of-three series with Game 5 Thursday in San Antonio and Game 6 Saturday in Los Angeles. A seventh game would be played May 19 in San Antonio, if needed.
Bryant scored 18 points in the first half Tuesday night, but those were hardly enough to counter a hot-shooting Spurs team that was scoring from three-point range with regularity in staking a 53-43 halftime lead. So in the third quarter, Bryant and his teammates started working the offense through O'Neal. They pounded the boards and steadily took San Antonio's top guns, Tim Duncan (19 points, 10 rebounds) and Tony Parker (18 points, eight assists) out of the game.
The result: A 74-69 lead going into the fourth quarter. The Lakers outscored the Spurs 31-16 in the third period by limiting them to 5-of-20 shooting. They out-rebounded the Spurs 13-5 and created a groundswell of momentum that got the capacity crowd roaring.
"Kobe and Shaq got going and the defensive intensity really picked up," Malone said. "That got everybody really into it."
From that point, Bryant put on a show. He scored 15 fourth-quarter points by making 6 of 10 shots -- one a driving scoop shot from behind the backboard in between three defenders -- that broke the spirit of the Spurs, who got as close as three early in the period before falling behind by as many as 12.
He was in a zone only he could fathom, a place only the great ones find.
"It is kind of like a psychiatrist," Bryant said. "It takes your mind off so many things. When you love your job it's an escape. The pressure, the stress, you can get out there on the basketball court and it's an escape. I'm just happy to be out there doing what you do best. That was a big game, the biggest game of the year. I wanted to come out and leave it out on the floor. Let it all hang out."
San Antonio swingman Bruce Bowen, considered one of the top perimeter defenders in the NBA, did his best to slow Bryant, but on this night, that was like trying to stop a hurricane with an umbrella. Ironically, before the game, Bowen said he could sense what was coming.
The distraction of Bryant's court case, "allows him to focus even more on basketball," Bowen said an hour before tip-off. "Whenever you got stuff going on, look at Michael Jordan when he was sick with the flu in the playoff against Utah, look at great players like Karl Malone, dealing with the death of his mom. There's a certain focus that guys can go to, to alleviate themselves from all that stress or pressure. With all that's going on, this is his place of no stress. No nothing."