SAN ANTONIO – Kobe Bryant had just snuffed the life from the San Antonio Spurs, coolly drilling a 3-pointer to send fans streaming into the brisk South Texas night, and even he was not prepared for the response that greeted him.
MVP? Deep in the heart of Texas? Lakers Nation had taken over the home of one of its most bitter rivals, surprising no less than Bryant himself.
"Especially considering all the battles we've had here," he said.
The Los Angeles Lakers and Spurs added another to their collection on Thursday. San Antonio spotted L.A. an 18-point lead after one quarter, fought its way back, then watched Kobe deliver yet another MVP moment in the Lakers' playoff-clinching 102-95 victory. If the resulting chant surprised Kobe, so did what preceded it, and that says something about how this rivalry has changed.
In those tense final minutes, with the Spurs having clawed within two, Bryant looked across the court to see a rookie guarding him. His first thought?
Bryant's old rival, the man who had chased him through so many of those playoff battles, sat on the bench watching. Bruce Bowen doesn't start games these days and, on many nights, he also doesn't finish them.
But Thursday was different. With Roger Mason having picked up his fifth foul with two minutes left, the Spurs needed someone to put on Bryant. Gregg Popovich looked down his bench, past Bowen, and called on his rookie guard, George Hill.
"It's just weird for me," Bryant said, "because I'm so used to having [Bowen] draped all over me."
It's weird for Bowen, too. Two seasons ago, he was the runner-up for the NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Now, he's getting passed over for even situational defense.
"I don't ever remember that happening here," he said.
Bowen won't complain. He's carved out a successful career by filling a role, and he's adjusted to this one, too. But the Spurs also have changed, and it remains to be seen whether that's going to help them should they face the Lakers again in the playoffs. They can tell themselves they were missing Manu Ginobili on Thursday. That Tim Duncan's knees might start to feel better. That they won't shoot free throws that poorly again. That Tony Parker won't need a full half to hit full speed. That Drew Gooden might become a valuable addition.
But deep down, the Spurs also left Thursday knowing this: For them, the Lakers are matchup hell. That doesn't make the Spurs different from most of the NBA, but it also won't help them in May. Duncan hasn't looked right since he took a few games off to rest his knee, but Pau Gasol also has consistently given him trouble since arriving in Los Angeles. The Spurs never have had an answer for Lamar Odom's athleticism and length. Nor can they match the depth of the Lakers' bench.
And should Andrew Bynum eventually return healthy and hungry? The last time the Spurs faced the Lakers with Bynum, they lost by 14.
Now, it seems like the Spurs again are searching for a counter to Bryant. Bowen was wise enough never to consider himself a Kobe Stopper, but he took pride in making Bryant work. He also is smart enough not to do what Ron Artest did Wednesday in Houston: Talking smack to Kobe always makes for a longer night.
Bowen and Bryant long have had a relationship built on respect. Before the Spurs played the Lakers in January, they sat at midcourt, talking. Ray Allen and Vince Carter always complained about Bowen's tactics. Bryant only competed, and on most nights, he won.
Bryant won last spring, too. With Bowen guarding him for much of the Western Conference finals, he led the Lakers to a five-game dismissal of the Spurs. Bowen turned 37 one month later, and the Spurs knew they needed to get younger, so they signed Mason.
Mason already has beaten the Lakers once, and his shooting will help in the playoffs. But what he can't do is defend. He spent most of Thursday reaching, finishing with five fouls, three of which Bryant drew 18 feet from the basket. The most telling moment: With Duncan already running at Bryant, Mason jumped desperately from behind, clipping Bryant just enough for the officials to blow their whistle.
With the Spurs having to help on Bryant so much in the final minutes, Gasol and Odom created their own mismatches.
The Spurs haven't abandoned the philosophy that's made them so good for so long. They still emphasize defense. But they also don't play it as well, and some of that is because of age and some of that is because of personnel.
Like Mason, Matt Bonner has improved the Spurs' shooting and spacing. But when the Detroit Pistons walked onto the floor after a timeout last month against the Spurs, Rasheed Wallace offered this reminder for his teammates: "Just give the ball to whoever Bonner is on."
Popovich still has hopes for Hill, his long-armed rookie. He praised him for his recent work on Steve Nash, then gave him the ultimate compliment – the opportunity to guard Bryant with the game hanging in the balance.
So Bryant raised up behind the 3-point line. Hill leaned into him. Bryant faded and released his shot.
"Kobe being Kobe," Duncan would later say.
Kobe being Kobe. Should the Spurs see him again in May, they'll have more reason than ever to worry.