Durant's challenge spurs Bryant to greatness
OKLAHOMA CITY – They passed in a corridor of the Ford Center, Kevin Durant(notes) and Russell Westbrook(notes) on the way to summer vacation and Kobe Bryant(notes) to the Western Conference semifinals. Bryant reached to hug them and blurted, “You all are two bad mother … . I’m glad I’m done with you.”
Suddenly, those sullen kids brightened and thanked Bryant for the kind compliment and the cutthroat competition.
As much as these young Oklahoma Thunder stars needed to learn the lessons of playing Bryant and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, Durant needed his debut tutorial on playoff perseverance and persistence. For as much as Oklahoma City’s young star needed Bryant to deliver him the right of passage, the oddest thing happened for Bryant. In a way that Kevin Durant needed Kobe Bryant, well, Bryant needed Durant.
One of these days, the Western Conference will belong to the young star, and rest assured the suggestions that Durant threatens to pass him sooner than later haven’t gone unnoticed by Bryant. For the first time in his career, some are doubting Bryant can still be considered a transcendent star in the sport.
All the way to 32 points in a 95-94 Game 6 victory to clinch the series, Bryant privately confessed that he cherished the confrontation with Durant. Perhaps he cherished it in ways that he didn’t completely comprehend until the series was over, until he had shown everyone that he’s not ceding a damn thing.
“More than last year or the year before, this means something because now they’re trying to force me out,” Bryant told Yahoo! Sports late Friday on his walk to the bus.
He let the words sit there for a moment.
They’re trying to force me out.
“And I’m not going anywhere.”
Yes, Bryant needed Durant as a prop in this series, a reminder that as gifted and devastating his talent, Durant isn’t pushing Bryant to the curb. Bryant’s forever listened to the public debates on his selfishness and leadership and character. Yet for Bryant, who’s playing through three significant injuries – an ankle, knee and broken finger – here has risen a debate that he has a more difficult time processing. You're questioning his stature as a superstar, as a transcendent talent? Well yes, this is different. This is uncharted for him.
“I’ve been around for so long, you’d figure that they would understand my competiveness comes when I’m trying to figure out a way,” Bryant said. “If I can’t walk, I’m going to figure out a way to be effective to help us win. That’s part of the challenge. And I guess if there’s no challenge, there’s nothing left for me. I might as well go home.”
Behind those sunglasses Bryant plopped onto the bridge of his nose, his eyes glistened again and he insisted, “History always seems to be repeating itself. People never learn.”
As Durant missed shot after shot, Bryant delivered 16 stirring points in the third quarter. He hit shots everywhere, in every contorted way. Again, the Thunder moved Durant over to defend him. In Game 4, it had bothered Bryant. He had a terrible shooting fourth quarter in Game 5 at the Staples Center.
Only this time, Bryant hit a 3-pointer on Durant. And another. When Durant and Westbrook made a bid to push this series to a seventh game on Sunday, Bryant buried a ridiculous baseline shot with a little over two minutes left to pull the Lakers within 94-93. As the final seconds ticked away, Bryant backed down Westbrook and rimmed a turned-around jumper in and out, only to see Pau Gasol(notes) free himself under the basket and put back the winning shot with half a second left.
Across Games 4 and 5, the Thunder held Bryant to a total of 25 points, but everything changed when it mattered on Friday night.
“Kobe made Kobe-like shots,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said with a sigh.
“He has the heart of a lion.”
Bryant doesn’t have all his speed and lift, but he can still summon his guile and ingenuity. The idea that it’s all gone is sheer foolery. It’s just that he’s never been so wrought with injury, so physically diminished. That doesn't constitute steep decline.
Bryant loves Durant, who is respectful, humble and a hellacious worker. When Team USA invited Durant fresh out of the University of Texas to its summer camp in Las Vegas, Durant had but one wish: Watch Kobe work in the gym, on the floor, and learn it all. Bryant understands the Thunder are coming and coming fast for the Lakers in the Western Conference. Next year? They could play them in the conference finals, not the first round.
When these Western Conference playoffs are finally over, it’s possible the Lakers will look back and decide the go-go Thunder were the toughest out for the defending champions.
“They've got some stallions over there,” Bryant said. “They just get up and down the floor. We won't see another team that's as athletic as they are the rest of the way.”
What’s more, there won’t be a forward the magnitude of Durant between now and a possible meeting with LeBron James(notes) in the NBA Finals. These Thunder threatened to be a nightmare for the Lakers, but L.A. survived them in a loud Ford Center, and Game 1 comes on Sunday against the Utah Jazz.
Yes, Kobe Bryant remembers the way he would go after Michael Jordan as a young star, and there was Kevin Durant coming for him in this series. Only, it wasn’t just the kid – but a dubious mob proclaiming Bryant was on a steep decline, that his days of dominance were done. All of that gets transformed into fuel for ferocity, into the most willful basketball star since Jordan taking on the long, sleek kid out of Oklahoma City and all those people he insisted are forcing him off basketball’s Rushmore and out of the company of LeBron and Dwyane Wade(notes).
To get there, you still go through Kobe Bryant. Durant tried and failed. He’ll be back. Somewhere, LeBron James waits in the distance, and the deeds and words of Kobe Bean Bryant were unmistakable on Friday night.
He isn’t going anywhere.