LOS ANGELES – The lane opened, and so did Kobe Bryant's(notes) eyes. In that flash of an instant, Bryant's warped ankle no longer felt stiff. His legs felt alive. He took one hard dribble and exploded up. Emeka Okafor(notes), the New Orleans Hornets center, jumped too.
Bryant cocked the ball with his right hand as if it were a hammer held above his head, and … well, this did not end gently for Mr. Okafor.
These are the moments when an NBA season can turn, and Kobe knew as much. This game, this series – maybe even these entire playoffs – became his again. Shannon Brown(notes) would later joke that the last time he had seen such a ferocious dunk, Kobe had an Afro. Brown and the rest of these Los Angeles Lakers saw the fury in Kobe's eyes, and they understood.
Raise up or sit down, Kobe was telling them. The Lakers' listless season had lurched precariously close to the edge. This quarter, this game – all of it was a referendum. And one violent dunk was all Kobe needed to send his message.
"They know I save those," he said. "I don't have much of those left anymore."
Bryant and his Lakers had limped into this Game 5, and yet they emerged looking stronger than they have in a month. The Lakers will fly to New Orleans for a Game 6 on Thursday, and the Hornets will again feel the energy of playing in front of their own fans. But Bryant, who had 19 points on Tuesday, made clear he has no intention of losing control of this series – just like he wouldn't give up last year's first-round series to the Oklahoma City Thunder or the conference semifinals to the Houston Rockets two years ago.
Finally, the Lakers played with an urgency that showed they are finally ready to treat these playoffs with the respect they deserve. Some of that was borne from the desperation of seeing Bryant need crutches to leave the locker room in New Orleans less than 48 hours earlier.
Bryant refused to have his ankle scanned on the off day, and his reasoning was simple: "I didn't feel it was broke. If it was, it wouldn't have even mattered. I was going to play anyway."
The Lakers had little doubt Bryant would play, but they couldn't be certain what he would give them. Phil Jackson predicted Kobe would "rise to the occasion," and yet even the Lakers coach wasn't sure after watching Bryant labor on the ankle through the opening minutes. Bryant didn't attempt a shot. He didn't do much of anything. After Kobe let Trevor Ariza(notes) brush past him, Jackson switched him onto Marco Belinelli(notes). Then he pulled him from the game.
"Better get him off the floor," Jackson said. "He's a liability."
The Lakers fought back as Bryant watched. Once he returned early in the second quarter, he continued to carry the fight to the Lakers. This time, there would be no worrying about his aggressiveness. As soon as the lane opened and Okafor rotated over to meet him, Bryant had his moment.
"It looked like he was going to challenge me at the rim," Kobe said, "and I accepted the challenge."
"I wasn't anticipating it being a dunk," Okafor said, "until it was a dunk."
Bryant's ferocity sent a charge through the Staples Center and the Lakers themselves. Rarely anymore does Kobe showcase that degree of athleticism. His recovery from offseason surgery on his right knee was slow this season, reducing him to an observer at the Lakers' practices. Even dunking in games robs too much from his legs.
And yet there was Bryant one quarter later, bolting by Ariza, curling around Carl Landry(notes), throwing down a stunning left-handed flush that was even more difficult, if not spectacular, than his dunk over Okafor.
"Some injury," Ariza sniffed.
Said Bryant: "We aren't all built the same way."
He's right, of course. Few players have been better at managing pain, at adjusting their bodies to cope with whatever ails them. Kobe learned to shoot with a broken finger. He severely sprained the same left ankle in Dallas earlier this season and didn't miss a game. In last year's first-round series with the Thunder, his right knee was so swollen it eventually needed to be drained. With the series tied 2-2 and the Lakers facing a critical Game 5, he volunteered to guard Russell Westbrook(notes). The Lakers won in a rout.
This time, the rest of the Lakers played with that same sense of purpose. Bryant's inactivity in the first quarter forced them all to join in the fight. Andrew Bynum(notes) and Pau Gasol(notes) overwhelmed the Hornets inside, showing a level of physicality that was missing from their loss in New Orleans two nights earlier. The Lakers' attack was balanced and unyielding.
With their season careening toward the cliff, the champs found something within them. They'll fly back to New Orleans now, Chris Paul(notes) and the Hornets still in their way, and someone wanted to know if Bryant's ankle was up for another challenge.
"I'm doubtful," he said.
Kobe laughed. He's taken back control of this series, of these playoffs. He doesn't plan to give it up anytime soon.
- The Lakers