LOS ANGELES – The locker-room doors swung open, and Kobe Bryant(notes) marched down the Staples Center corridor wearing big shades and bigger defiance. He ingested the relentless proclamations that his battered body had cut too deeply into his greatness, that his fragile state demanded that for the good of the Los Angeles Lakers' championship chase he turn them over to Pau Gasol(notes) and Andrew Bynum(notes).
Everything balled up inside Bryant and ultimately uncoiled in Game 2 against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night.
"After 13 years," Bryant would tell Yahoo! Sports on his walk to the interview room, "you'd think [bleepers] would know better by now."
Know better than to think that they could keep him down in these Western Conference playoffs. Know better than to think that Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant(notes) could strut into Staples Center and beat Bryant in a fourth-quarter shootout. Most of all, they had to know better than to think Bryant wouldn't still dictate the terms of engagement. He's in his 14th season with the Lakers, and maybe they still didn't know a damn thing about him.
Truth be told, no one was underestimating his greatness – perhaps just his resourcefulness. Once more, resistance to his will is futile. These go-go Thunder kept coming for the Lakers, kept threatening, and that gimpy ankle and beat-up knee and broken finger became incidental issues in an epic fourth quarter. They were throwing all those kids at him – Jeff Green(notes) and Kevin Durant, Thabo Sefolosha(notes) and Eric Maynor(notes) – and Bryant turned into this old puppeteer, reaching into his bag for stutter steps and pump fakes, for lean-in jumpers and long, long 3-pointers on the way to his 39 points and a 95-92 victory.
"What was it that Mark Twain said?" Phil Jackson sniffed Tuesday night.
Yes, the reports of Kobe's demise had been greatly exaggerated. For all the discussion about pounding the ball inside to Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, the circumstances dictated Bryant's aggression on offense. The Thunder packed the paint, protected the rim and blocked a surreal 17 shots. An hour before Game 2, Jackson had suggested that Bryant needed "to adjust his game to match ours."
Translated: The coach thought he was shooting too much. Twenty-eight shots later, Jackson was grateful that the Lakers had survived to take a 2-0 series lead. The Lakers needed Bryant's brilliance in the fourth quarter – 15 points, including 7-of-9 from the free throw line – to take this series back to Oklahoma City with space to operate.
Joe Bryant was at Staples Center on Tuesday night; he thinks it could've been five years since he had watched his son courtside in a playoff game. He has coached pro ball in the Far East and those seasons always overlap with this time of the year. So, here he was Tuesday, in a corner of the Lakers' locker room, marveling over a ballplayer who he insisted would've fit so seamlessly into his NBA in the 1970s and early '80s.
"People won't appreciate what he's done until he's finished," Joe Bryant said. "You look back, and players won't play because their finger is swollen, or because their pinkie toe is hurt. Someday, they're going to look back, and think, 'Damn, these guys now aren't like Kobe.'
"… To me, it's just like watching Picasso."
As for the debate about his competence to compete at the highest level, Bryant had been listening intently. For him, it's like filling the tanks hitched to his back with some kind of nitro ferocity. The conversation has played out in public – in Los Angeles and beyond – over the kind of basketball he ought to be playing for the Lakers now. The more they told him to pull back, the harder he pushed. That's just Bryant, and that just happens to be the competitive crux of his greatness.
What have these past few weeks been like, with the injuries, with the jerking in and out of the lineup, with the missed shots? "Amusing," Bryant said. "Entertaining."
He wasn't referring to those professional trials as much as he was the people who were talking about them. Deep down, Bryant knows they all did him a favor. He needed the edge on Tuesday night, and they gave it to him. Durant dared match him shot for shot with 32 points, and Bryant knew the Lakers needed one of his vintage bailouts.
"The fourth quarter is when I have to provide a spark," Bryant said.
In his mind, those rules of engagement stay unchanged. To hell with the ankle, the knee and that wrapped, broken finger. To hell with it all. Get him the ball late, and live and die with his choices. Across the past month, the Lakers weren't so sure they could still live that way. Around L.A., no one was too sure. No one but Bryant.
Everything had balled up within him these past few weeks, where he probably been anything but amused and entertained. He was ornery and angry, and he's always painted his most beautiful basketball pieces that way. After 14 seasons, Kobe Bryant was right: All those (bleepers) should have known better.