Associated Press

Kobe Bryant loves defending his kindred spirit, Carmelo Anthony, on and off the basketball court.

The Los Angeles Lakers' superstar who became fast friends with the Denver Nuggets' powerful playmaker during the Beijing Olympics bristled at the trendy notion that 'Melo has morphed into a star in this year's playoffs.

Sure, he's averaging 28 points and has made countless clutch plays after five straight years of frustrating first-round exits, but Bryant swears 'Melo, the butt of so many jokes in China, has had this type of talent in him all along.

"He was ready. He was never the problem. He was never the issue,” Bryant said.

The two have built a blossoming friendship even as they doggedly guard each other in the best subplot of the Western Conference finals.

Bryant said it was just a matter of putting the right players around Anthony.

"He worked hard. He was committed to playing defense. We all knew he could score the ball. I never saw him as being a problem at all,” Bryant said. “And now everybody's talking about this miraculous transformation. There's no damn transformation. He's been doing it since Syracuse.”

Just not this deep into the NBA postseason.

Denver Nuggets coach George Karl insists 'Melo has indeed refined his game this season, placing his focus on defense and rebounding as much as putting the ball through the hoop. That has sent him hurdling into the special stratosphere where few players reside.

For that, Anthony can certainly thank the arrival of Chauncey Billups, who has proved a much better co-pilot than Allen Iverson.

Karl has been saying for a long time, though, that 'Melo would finally get his due when the burden of first-round failures was lifted, because while All-Star trips and gold medals are great, winning in the NBA playoffs is the truest ticket to stardom.

"There have been a lot of players not get out of the first round multiple years, and it's a burden. It's a burden on your confidence and a burden on your psyche,” Karl said, remembering how Gary Payton went through the same ringer in Seattle.

"(Anthony's) consistency in this playoff series has been extremely big time. Even great players don't have consistent 30-point games,” Karl said.

Anthony averaged 35 points in the five games leading up to Game 3, when his shot suddenly stopped falling and he finished with 21 points.

"If last night's game was the bad game, I think we're in pretty good shape,” Karl said Sunday. “Most bad games you don't get 20 points.”

Anthony promised to bounce back and make this a long, grueling series, and Bryant is his biggest believer.

Kobe sees a lot of himself in 'Melo.

"He and I are probably the only ones in the league now who have that mid-range game down pat in terms of shooting pull-up jump-shots, 1-2 dribble pull-ups going both ways,” Bryant suggested. “Then, he can post up the ball and he has a long ball, too.”

It's made for a great matchup when they go against each other.

Through all the pushing and poking, bumping and banging, flapping and flopping, the two never seem to stop smiling.

Anthony and Bryant hit it off last year while leading Team USA to the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics.

"Yeah, that's my man,” Bryant said. "We just get along extremely well. He's just a good kid, works extremely hard, funny as hell. Our personalities match. It's a shame that we're playing each other in this series, somebody's got to lose. I'd rather it be him than me, but he's just a great person.”

Bryant swears he saw 'Melo rounding out his considerable game long before this supposedly breakout postseason rolled around and everybody else seemed to take notice of the still baby-faced star who led the Orangemen to a national title as a freshman in 2003 before jumping to the NBA.

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