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The undisputed thing about Kobe Bryant is that he's the best closer in sports. At winning time, he's money. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

He can't do anything about the cat in Cleveland, the most unique specimen in NBA history.

He can't do anything about the other magnificent free agents except watch them disappear from the playoffs, one by one, while he endures, defying the effects of age and stress and body fatigue.

Kobe Bryant can't do much about the fans either, yet he knows where he stands with them, that there are two camps: Kobe Lovers and Kobe Haters.

But the undisputed thing about Kobe, the documentation we must acknowledge, no matter how we feel, is that he's the best closer in sports. At winning time, he's money.

That's why the Lakers, the league's most polarizing team, will conquer the Celtics in the NBA Finals beginning tonight at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. Kobe is The Difference. Fourth quarter, tight game, noise cranking up, on the road or at home, nobody does it better.

And, really, Bryant only gets more incredible with time. Consider his supporting cast, with only forward Pau Gasol worthy of All-Star consideration. Consider the L.A. bench, one of the least impressive to reach the playoffs. Consider, too, that Kobe may be "only'' 31 but is 36 in NBA years.

Kobe Bryant, Lakers
Bryant has been hot of late, scoring 30 or more in 10 of his past 11 games. In Game 6 of the Western Conference finals against Phoenix, he practically held off the Suns by himself in the fourth quarter, hitting three key shots, two of them with defenders all over him. Bryant is averaging 29.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 6.2 assists in the playoffs.
Rajon Rondo, Celtics
Rondo has been the key to Boston's playoff run. He was especially unstoppable in the Eastern Conference semifinals against Cleveland, averaging 20.7 points (on 54.1 percent shooting), 6.3 rebounds and 11.8 assists. For the playoffs, he is averaging 16.7 points (46.7 percent shooting), 5.3 rebounds and 10.0 assists.

Schedule
All games on ABC
TODAY: at Los Angeles, 6 p.m.
Sunday: at Los Angeles, 5 p.m.
Tuesday: at Boston, 6 p.m.
June 10: at Boston, 6 p.m.
June 13: at Boston, 5 p.m.*
June 15: at Los Angeles, 6 p.m.*
June 17: Los Angeles, 6 p.m.*
* -- if necessary
TEAM COMPARISONS
Lakers Celtics
Record 57-25 50-32
Home 34-7 24-17
Road 23-18 26-15
Head-to-head 1-1 1-1
Finals trips 31st 21st
Finals W-L 85-87 74-48
NBA titles 15 17
KEY MATCHUP
Ron Artest vs. Paul Pierce
When the Celtics beat the Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals, Paul Pierce was the series MVP, averaging 21.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists. But the Lakers didn't have a frontcourt defender who could bother him (Trevor Ariza was injured). That brings us to Ron Artest, whom the Lakers signed as a free agent. Artest is the one major roster change from last season's NBA champions, and the main reason the Lakers got him was for playoff matchups such as this one. Pierce, by the way, warmed up for the Finals by averaging 24.3 points (51.2 percent shooting) and 8.3 rebounds in the Eastern Conference finals against Orlando.
-- DARRYL MATSUDA