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Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Updated: January 18, 2:57 PM ET
Bynum has made Kobe a championship believer

By J.A. Adande

Kobe Bryant's 48 points in the Lakers' 123-121 overtime victory against the SuperSonics weren't the most remarkable part of his evening. We've seen him go for 40-plus before -- 86 times prior to Monday night, to be precise.

The newsworthy part came afterward, in an on-court interview with KCAL TV, in which he talked about injured center Andrew Bynum. Bryant called Bynum a "terrific, terrific player," then dropped this quote: "We're a championship-caliber team when he's in the lineup."

Los Angeles Lakers
Once a critic, Kobe has finally turned the corner on his young center.
For Bryant to speak of these Lakers in championship terms, now that's significant. It was an unexpected bit of good news on the same day the Lakers learned Bynum will miss the next eight weeks while recovering from the knee injury he suffered Sunday night against Memphis.

Throughout their strong start to the season, Bryant was cautious with his praise, reserving judgment. While Lakers fans said, "See?!", Bryant's remarks were more wait-and-see. Now, halfway through the season, Bynum apparently has shown enough for Bryant to use the c-word. It makes you wonder if his eyes are no longer wandering, if he thinks the most realistic place to satisfy all of his wants and needs is his current address.

Until he publicly rescinds his trade demand, the clock still is ticking down toward his early termination option in the summer of 2009. But the second-hand movements get a little quieter whenever Bryant makes a statement like that one. If he honestly thinks Bynum can develop into the best center west of Dwight Howard, if he believes the Lakers can get back to the Finals while he still is in his prime, then there's no reason for him to walk away from the final two years and almost $48 million on his contract. Any team with another superstar on the roster wouldn't have enough salary cap space to give Bryant that kind of money. And any team close enough to a ring probably wouldn't want to ship too many of those pieces to L.A. to bring in Bryant.

The Lakers never were eager to trade Bryant, only willing. So they coexisted in an awkward truce. And it appears they have made the most unlikely reconciliation since Tony and Carmella Soprano.

Now comes the hard part. The Lakers are about to hit the most difficult stretch of the schedule, including only three home games in February. Without Bynum for the past game and a half, the Lakers were barely able to beat two of the worst teams in the conference. It took all of Bryant's 85 points.

It's not that he was able to do it. By now, it's obvious he could score 50 whenever he wanted. It's that he was willing to do it, that he feels vested enough in this team's welfare to go all in for victory. He has showed increasing trust in his teammates throughout the season; Monday, they turned to him, and he bailed them out.

That victory in Seattle, secured when Bryant scored the final six points of overtime, gave the Lakers a 26-11 record. It tied them with Phoenix for the best in the Western Conference. The Lakers get the Suns at home Thursday. If L.A. beats Phoenix, not only will it clinch the season series -- and homecourt advantage in a tiebreaker situation, should they meet in the playoffs -- but this young squad will have all the psychological ammunition it needs to take on the team that ended their season the past two years.

In their two months without Bynum, the Lakers will fall from the top of the Western Conference. The question is, how much? How much fort-holding can Bryant do, and how much will he have left when Bynum comes back? Will the Lakers be able to recapture the flow that created this seven-game winning streak they are on right now?

Those are fair questions for anyone to ponder. As for the answers, Bryant reminded us once again Monday: It's not about what anyone else believes. His is the only opinion that matters.

J.A. Adande is the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." He joined as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.