: An air of inevitability no longer smothers the NBA season.
The reflex response hasn't changed: You still expect a Pistons-Spurs rematch in the Finals, even with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili hobbling.
There is this for variety and intrigue: Who knows what Kobe Bryant has planned for the next 40 games?
There will be a sense of anticipation hanging over every outing from now on, starting with Friday night. Bryant emerged from four days of rest to follow his historic 81-point eruption against the Toronto Raptors with . . . a measly five points through three quarters and then a 25-point rush to help the Lakers secure a 106-105 overtime triumph over Golden State.
It would add up to the biggest game-to-game decrease in NBA history, Kobe's 51-point dip eclipsing Rick Barry's 48-point slippage (from 64 points to 16 in back-to-back games) in 1974. It would also make you wonder if Kobe was trying to save a little bit more energy for Sunday's showdown with the Detroit Pistons, when he'll really need it.
That's OK, though. We're prepared for anything after checking in with a variety of NBA luminaries to answer Eight Burning Questions about No. 8 and what he might (or might not) do from here:1. What would Wilt think of Kobe even believing he could have a 100-point game?
Golden State executive Al Attles
, Chamberlain's point guard on the magical evening of March 2, 1962, in Hershey, Pa.:
"Contrary to what a lot of people might think, Wilt would have liked to hear that. He'd be impressed with Kobe. ... But I remember Wilt telling me he wanted to come out of that ballgame -- it was the team that kind of egged him on to try for 100. The fact he made 28 free throws (out of 32 attempts) ... I think even he felt it was a once-in-a-lifetime shot."2. Is making a run at triple digits harder for a perimeter player?
Dallas Mavericks assistant Del Harris
, Bryant's first coach with the Lakers:
"You really have to look at it two ways. Kobe is obviously not as big or as overpowering as Wilt, but the flip side is that someone has to get the big guys the ball, whereas the smaller players can just get the ball. It's really tough to score if you don't have the ball -- that's a historical fact.
"What I will say is that defenses, particularly now, are a lot more adept at smothering a big guy with double teams and rotations and such, which were not a part of the game when Chamberlain played. There were a lot of factors [back then] that probably made it easier for Wilt than for a perimeter player."3. Kobe is averaging nearly 46 points a game in January. What can defenders do to slow him down?
ABC's Scottie Pippen
, regarded as one of the finest perimeter stoppers in history:
"It's hard for me to say, because the game is so open now. There are no hard traps in today's game. You can't touch guys. You can't give a hard foul. Tony Parker is leading the league in points in the paint -- I never thought a point guard could shoot that high of a percentage. But obviously he's getting to the hole a lot.
"The rules [limiting contact on the perimeter] have really changed the game. When Michael Jordan used to score 40 points, that was a huge headline, national news. Now 40 points doesn't even make you pay attention to SportsCenter. Fifty points is not even shocking. I think I've seen more 40-point and 50-point games in the last few years than I've seen in my whole life."4. Doesn't a one-on-five performance like the Toronto game reinforce the idea that playing with Kobe is no fun?
TNT's Steve Kerr
, one of the greatest role players of all-time in winning five rings with Chicago and San Antonio:
"I don't think his teammates mind. In fact, I think they were just as enthralled as the rest of us. We all used to marvel at MJ and the things he did and it's the same with Kobe. I think he's almost exactly like MJ personality-wise. He's a cold-blooded killer. Not that easy to play with, but if you want to win, get on his side. As for people wanting to play with Kobe [in the future], guys will want to if the money's right. That's what it all comes down to."5. How does a coach bring Kobe back into a team structure after 81?
: "Kobe's smart. Even if he wants to get 100, it's not going to be this week. He won't try to do that. There will be another time that he takes a shot at a huge number before the season's over, but it won't be now. He's too clever for that. He can see how that could backfire. A guy might hit five home runs in a game because they're capable, but it doesn't happen very often."6. Is anyone rooting harder for Kobe now than the Raptors he torched?
Toronto's Jalen Rose
"I'll be watching because I'm an NBA lifer -- I watch every game I can. We don't want to be the team that gave up 81 -- nobody wants to be looked at like that -- but we have to give Kobe his due. This is the best all-around player and competitor in the game. And the scary part is, he will only get better, especially with Phil Jackson on his side. He will go down as one of the all-time greats."7. We have to ask: Are the comparisons between Kobe and MJ more valid than ever?
: "My hat's off to [Bryant]. Eighty-one points is a great accomplishment. But I could never compare what Kobe has done to what Michael was able to do.
"Against some of those Piston teams we played, those Knick teams, a layup wasn't always a layup if you know what I mean. If I think back to some of the defenders [Jordan] played against like Joe Dumars or Alvin Robertson or even John Starks, there's no way those guys would let Michael Jordan go through them like Toronto did."8. We have to ask, Part II: How can anyone honestly suggest Kobe could score 100 points in an age where the nightly league average for teams is 97?
ABC's and ESPN's Bill Walton
, who, like Chamberlain, has a spot on the list of all-time great centers after winning championships with Portland, Boston and UCLA:
"Kobe's level of fitness is so amazing, he's left everyone else in the dust. When you saw him at the end of that Toronto game, he didn't even look tired. He's like a guy on a bike ride who feels so strong that he just says, 'The heck with the rest of you guys,' and breaks away from the rest of the pack.
"I think he's going to get 100, and I think he's going to get it in the next month."