OKLAHOMA CITY – There would be no mea culpa from Kobe Bryant on this night. No put-it-on-me. No admission of guilt, acceptance of responsibility or credible explanation for his role in the Los Angeles Lakers' stunning Game 2 collapse at the feet of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Instead, Bryant hemmed and hawed about how Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook surprised the Lakers with their risk-taking. "It was a little unconventional," he said, as if he'd never seen a desperate defender step into a passing lane.
Bryant talked about how the Lakers' decision to pound the ball inside to Andrew Bynum left him too far from the basket and with too little time on the shot clock. "I tried to create something, and it just didn't work out," he said, and while there's some truth in that, he has a portfolio packed with 17 years of far more difficult shots.
Bryant gave only hollow excuses, ignoring the obvious: He coughed up this game, allowing the Lakers to somehow waste a seven-point lead in the final 128 seconds. He lost a pass to Durant, let another go through his hands, missed a 3-pointer and had a shot thrown back by James Harden. It was two minutes, eight seconds of chaos, one blunder after another. Never has Bryant looked so clumsy – so mortal – in such a big moment.
"I was surprised," Lakers coach Mike Brown said.
Afterward, Bryant and Brown both rued the final opportunity that never came Kobe's way. With 5.7 seconds left and Metta World Peace inbounding, the Lakers set a flare screen for Bryant. Bryant said he sprung open in the middle of the lane. Brown agreed. World Peace instead swung the ball to Steve Blake, who was standing alone in the corner. As Blake's shot clanged off the back of the rim and into the hands of Thabo Sefolosha, Kobe swung his fist in disgust. In truth, the game should have never come down to that play.
"We're better than Santa Claus," Bynum would later say. "We gave them a gift."
Bryant's competitiveness allows him to concede nothing, and that's fine. He never does mea culpas, and he wasn't going to start now. His stubbornness, selfishness, has made him one of the greatest ever. But deep down, with the Lakers flying home in an 0-2 hole, their season pushed to the edge of the cliff, Bryant knows the truth.
This is on him now.
The Lakers can hope Bynum becomes more efficient, more consistent, but he's not the problem in this series. Ramon Sessions is the lost soul. Bryant has ridden Sessions hard in practice during these playoffs, and for good reason: The Lakers thought they were acquiring the athletic playmaker they've long needed, enough to make Derek Fisher expendable. So far, it appears, they've given Kobe another Smush Parker.
The rest of the Lakers' role players are what they are: adequate on some nights, not adequate enough on others. If anyone is going to pull the Lakers back into the series, it will have to be Bryant. He hasn't played up to his standard in the first two games – and really hasn't looked the same since gutting through his stomach sickness in the Lakers' Game 6 loss to the Denver Nuggets in the first round.
Bryant chided his teammates for not matching his competitiveness in that game. On this night, he deserved the blame. He hit a flurry of shots to steady the Lakers in the second half, but missed 16 of 25 overall, including all six of his 3-pointers. He's shot poorly before, but to give away a game?
"Stuff happens," Brown said. "He'll regroup and we'll all regroup."
The Lakers played well enough defensively to win, corralling Westbrook and turning Durant into a facilitator for long stretches of the game. The Thunder's frustration showed: After Serge Ibaka and Westbrook barked at each other on the sideline, Westbrook spiked a water bottle onto the court then walked away from the team's huddle. The young Thunder looked ready to crack.
Instead, Bryant gave Durant the only opening he needed. Fisher lined up alongside Bryant for all those years, all those playoff battles. Now with the Thunder, Fisher wasn't ready to pass judgment on his old teammate's struggles.
"I think he does about the best job of anybody in the league at putting his team in position to win," Fisher said. "The best players in the world are not going to be perfect."
Fisher understood what could await the Thunder when they walk into the Staples Center on Friday night. Never had Bryant looked so fallible, and never will he be more motivated.
Wednesday night had bled into Thursday morning, as Kobe made the walk to the Lakers' bus. He'd never admit it, but he knew he gave away this game. He also knows it's up to him to take back the series.
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