NEW ORLEANS - Reggie Bush got bashful for a moment.
It appeared Saints coach Sean Payton had given Bush a kiss on the cheek following his electrifying performance against the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday, and the elusive running back was unable to escape the Louisiana Superdome without being pinned down about it.
“Oh, yeah, I don’t want to admit it, but he did give me a kiss,” Bush said with a grin.
The outpouring of affection for the first draft choice of the Payton era was understandable.
Bush labored through the regular season with a lack of extraordinary outings before opening his second trip to the playoffs with his best performance in more than a year.
His last comparable showing came on a Monday night in the first half of the 2008 season, against — of all teams — the Minnesota Vikings, whom the Saints will host on Sunday evening in the NFC title game.
Bush returned a pair of punts for touchdowns in that wild 30-27 loss to the Vikings.
Two weeks later, he injured his left knee and hadn’t been the same since.
That is, until last weekend, when he spun and danced away from defenders during a 46-yard touchdown run, and followed that with a blazing 83-yard punt return for a score.
Bush made the long return look easy. Arizona tried to pin him near the sideline, but Bush was able to move laterally, looking for a hole, then burst up the middle of the field as if racing for Olympic gold.
With good blocking, he had only punter Ben Graham standing in his way. Bush angled right and blew by him before trotting into the end zone with the ball held high in celebration.
“He’s as healthy as he’s been, and he was something,” Payton said. “You saw it not only on the punt return, but you saw it on the big, long touchdown run. He’s a dynamic player. … A big reason for our success offensively is what he does, not only in space but on the edges and catching the ball, running the ball.”
Shortly before the end of the 2008 season, with his knee still bothering him, Bush had surgery to repair cartilage. The operation included a microfracture procedure in which tiny holes drilled into bone cause a secretion that mimics the cartilage padding the joint.
While Bush had recovered enough to get back on the field last summer, he said he did not feel fully healed until recently.
“It’s been a while since I felt this rested and this good,” Bush said. “I’ve kind of been nursing the injury for the first part of the season and I think Coach Payton knew that.
“We both knew that going into the season and our plan was just kind of try to get me to the postseason and from there on allow me to make plays and do whatever else they ask me to.”
With the prospect of elimination hanging over each playoff game, Bush was determined not to hold anything back against Arizona.
He led the Saints onto the field wielding a black baseball bat bearing the inscription, “Bring the wood,” and ran hard throughout the game, taking on tacklers with shoulders lowered instead of seeking the safety of the sideline as he’s often done before.
“Feeling this good, physically, you have room for punishment and just punishing the defense,” Bush said. “These types of games are the games you live for as a football player. Big-time players make big-time plays in games like this.”
Bush led the Saints in rushing against Arizona with 84 yards on only five carries. He caught four passes for 24 yards, including a diving 5-yard snag over the middle on third down, extending a drive that ended with Marques Colston’s touchdown.
He returned three punts for 109 yards.
“He understands his role on this team as a guy who will have the opportunity to make some explosive plays in the run game, in the pass game and special teams, and he took full advantage,” quarterback Drew Brees said.
During the regular season, Bush managed a few highlight-reel plays. One of the more memorable came in Miami, where he scored by leaping about 5 yards, arms stretched out to each side so he could sneak the ball inside the pylon before crashing out of bounds. He had a 55-yard run at St. Louis in Week 10, but was uncharacteristically run down shortly before getting to the end zone.
Otherwise, Bush’s numbers were solid but hardly jaw-dropping. He was the Saints’ third-leading rusher — behind Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell — with 390 yards and five touchdowns. He caught 47 passes for 335 yards and three touchdowns. On punt returns, he averaged only 4.8 yards per return, with a long of 23 and no TDs.
Last weekend, his performance was more like what Saints fans expected when Bush, the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner, was drafted second overall out of Southern California in 2006.
“The key is having your guys at full strength and we did feel like in his case he was completely healthy and he has looked real sharp in practice of late,” Payton said. “A few months ago I told him, ‘Just keep chopping the wood and keep working hard; you’re too explosive of a player.’ ”
The Vikings certainly have noticed the impact Bush can have — both in person and on tape.
“I don’t want to give any competitive advantage to how or where we will kick the ball,” Minnesota coach Brad Childress said. “He is a very good returner as you know and I know.”
Added placekicker Ryan Long-well: “Unfortunately for us, Reggie seems like the guy he was last year with his return Saturday night.”