LOS ANGELES — Among Kobe Bryant's myriad inimitable talents is what's known to opposing coaches simply as the "rise-up."
That's when Bryant has a defender blanketing him on the perimeter, obstructing his vision and physically preventing him from driving — yet he simply leaps high enough and leans far enough forward or backward to release a perfect jumper anyway.
Bryant rose up against Grant Hill in the final minute of the Lakers' conference-clinching 111-103 victory over the Suns late Saturday, putting his stamp on a 37-point night that sent the Lakers into the NBA Finals against the Celtics.
With Hill in his face, Bryant leaped up and away from the veteran forward and made a 23-footer that essentially clinched the victory. Bryant punctuated it with a pat on Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry's derriere.
"I said, 'Good defense,' to Grant," Gentry recalled with a rueful smile. "(Bryant) said, 'Not quite good enough.' … I thought Grant was going to block the shot. That was a fallaway 3-pointer with a hand in your face, off balance. You know, that's who he is."
Bryant is enjoying arguably the most impressive playoff run of his career, and not because his numbers are any larger than in a previous postseason. He has scored 30 in 10 of the Lakers' last 11 games — and moreover, he has willed a team with an injured center, two more inconsistent starters and little bench help beyond Lamar Odom into its third straight NBA Finals, starting Thursday at Staples Center.
Though Bryant claimed he didn't care who the Lakers play in the Finals, it's tough to believe he isn't thrilled by a shot at revenge against his franchise's biggest playoff rival, which beat Bryant two years ago.
"It's a sexy matchup," Bryant acknowledged. "We're looking forward to this challenge, looking forward to the test."
There's another reason many expect Bryant to come out blazing against the Celtics: He didn't play terribly well two years ago in the Finals, his first without Shaquille O'Neal by his side. He averaged 25.7 points and made about 40 percent of his shots against the Celtics, who finished off Los Angeles 131-92 in Game 6.
The Lakers also didn't have center Andrew Bynum, who was out for the year with an injury, or defensive stopper Trevor Ariza, who had a broken foot. Bynum is hobbling on torn cartilage in his right knee this time, yet he's healthy enough to play interior defense and occasionally dunk.
In Ariza's place, the Lakers have Ron Artest, who followed his winning layup in Game 5 with 25 points in the clincher against Phoenix. After two series without a clear-cut defensive assignment, Artest likely will guard Paul Pierce in the Finals.
"We have five new members of the team, but some of these guys remember how it felt to lose," coach Phil Jackson said
If Bryant gets around Boston this time, he will be one ring short of Michael Jordan's collection of six.
"Last time we played them, it was a great learning experience for us," Bryant said. "It taught us what it takes to be a champion. With the defensive intensity they play with, the tenacity they play with, we learned a great deal."