Performance vs. Knicks was virtuoso

NEW YORK -- If you were there, and we were, it was a night to be easily swayed.

And we were.

It is often said that the Lakers' 3-9 start without Shaquille O'Neal disqualified Kobe Bryant as an MVP candidate. The Lakers' 5-0 sprint to the All-Star break, it says here, put Bryant right back at the top of the list, so long as the upward arc continues.

From 3-9, from all the way down at 11-19, Bryant has to be back in the conversation now. His 46 points in a 114-109 victory over the Knicks took Bryant's five-game flurry to 201 points in all, hauling the three-time champions to 24-23.

So long as the upward arc continues ...

"Lately, Kobe is actually building a stronger case (for MVP), for him to be doing what he's doing and for us to be coming back from such a dismal start," teammate Rick Fox said.

That was the only logical conclusion from the floor or a baseline seat Thursday night. Madison Square Garden could scarcely contain the hum after Kobe glided under the hoop late in the first half for one of those contorting layups only he makes, except that this time Kobe reached down for a little extra and reverse dunked it.

Kobe later remarked that it had "been a long time since I've had a dunk during the game that had the crowd buzzing a couple of plays later." The buzzing didn't stop and neither did he, not until Bryant had scored 36 of the 46 points in the second and third quarter alone. Bryant didn't stop until the clock showed 8:50 left to play, when Phil Jackson gave him a rest and left the Lakers naked.

There was a triple in Latrell Sprewell's face just before the halftime buzzer that had Bryant flexing. There was a shower of triples in a 22-point third quarter. There were multiple swished runners and a Larry Bird tip pass to Shaquille O'Neal as Bryant was falling out of bounds. The dunk, also with Sprewell helpless in the vicinity, launched a run of 27 points in a span of 13 minutes.

The spurt, though, really started Jan. 29. The Lakers had a four-day break after a limp home loss to New Jersey and Jackson, during the recharging, implored Bryant to play with as much controlled aggression as he could muster.

"We talked about putting the punch back in our offense," Jackson said.

The punch line: 40, 38, 42, 35 and 46 points in the five games since.

Bryant, averaging 40.2 points in that stretch, powered the Lakers to wins over Phoenix, Sacramento, Utah, Indiana and New York, all but Utah on the road. Jackson was the only force that managed to stop him, with a substitution after the Knicks had sliced a 97-67 deficit to 97-77.

Figuring that a 20-point lead was still safe, Jackson sent O'Neal back in and summoned Bryant to the bench. Bryant had to come back to get the save less than four minutes later, after three 3-pointers from Sprewell helped draw the Knicks within 12. He made a careless turnover with 2:27 to go, dribbling the ball off his leg, but Bryant gathered himself for six more points in the stretch run to seal it.

The question now is whether an All-Star break will disrupt Bryant's other-worldly groove. Jackson, not surprisingly, insisted that it won't, saying that all the guys Kobe has carried could use an intermission, even if Bryant doesn't get one.

"It's OK," Jackson said. "We pushed to this break. We'll pick it up again. I'd like to see us keep playing but we need a break, too."

The other question: Can Bryant keep doing this and still have something left for the playoffs? He has everyone on his back at present, even the 7-1, 350-pound behemoth who's still some distance from full impact.

So long as the Lakers' upward arc continues, with Bryant at the forefront, there will be little question that he he'll have to be a leading MVP candidate in April, no matter what anyone thought when he was doing all the carrying and L.A. opened 3-9.

"Shaq should always be in that conversation -- every year, at all times," said L.A.'s Derek Fisher. "But Kobe should, too, the way he's been doing it."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.