The hopeless expression that was transfixed upon Kobe Bryant’s face said it all.
Kevin Durant, the NBA’s MVP runner-up, and Russell Westbrook combined for 52 points, as the Oklahoma City Thunder cruised to a 116-90 rout of the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals series on Monday. Bryant and a much-improved Andrew Bynum each scored 20 points apiece for the Lakers (with Bynum grabbing 14 rebounds) but the look of despair on Bryant’s face served as an indication that the window for him to obtain his sixth championship is closing– rapidly.
Two games after trailing by as many as 28 points in a blowout loss in Game 6 in Denver, thing got worse for the Lakers, who were down by as many as 35-points at the Chesapeake Energy Arena on Monday night. Kobe and company responded to their last thrashing by defeating George Karl’s talented Nuggets 96-87 in a thrilling Game 7 on Saturday night. Now, the Lakers will need another big bounce-back performance for Game 2 in OKC on Wednesday night.
“I’ve been on the receiving end [of playoff blowouts]. I’ve also been on the end [when] we’re dishing it out,” Bryant told ESPN. “My experience is telling me to stay patient and think the game through. We’re going to have to make our adjustments.”
In 2009, the Los Angeles Lakers were pushed to seven games by the Houston Rockets during the Western Conference semifinals. They were blown out in Game 6 and had to go back to L.A. for a decisive Game 7. The Lakers struggled then with inconsistency and displayed little effort on both sides of the ball, before advancing on to win-it-all, giving Bryant his fourth title. On Saturday, it wasn’t just Kobe’s heroics that helped L.A. overcome adversity, but instead it was the return of defensive stalwart Metta World Peace that rallied the Lakers past Denver and provided relief to a struggling squad. On Monday, not even World Peace could save the Lakers.
In his mind, Kobe was able to see a jagged journey to a championship in’09. But, after L.A. wasn’t able to close out the Nuggets early last week, and after their woeful defeat in Game 1, Bryant’s vision of the Lakers’ future is not as clear as it once was– and he’s beginning to sense that his quest for six just might be in jeopardy.
At age 33, the huge degree of responsibility Kobe took on during this lockout-compressed season –Bryant took 36 percent of L.A.’s shots while on the court and posted a Usage Percentage of 35.7– has severely worn him down. On Monday, it was Bryant who had to check Westbrook, and the Thunder All-Star point guard either got by Bryant himself or had a teammate set screen– with no Laker defender there to step up. At one point Westbrook ran Kobe into a back-screen, and then soared for an alley-oop pass from Durant with no one from the Lakers’ frontcourt coming over to help. Kobe was furious at the lack of defensive help. As evident in his post-game comments, after the L.A. failed to finish off the Nuggets in Game 6, Bryant is sick and tired of carrying the Lakers’ load. He turned a question about the return of Metta World Peace from a seven-game suspension into an indictment of his teammates: “He’s the one guy that I can rely on night in and night out to compete and play hard and play with that sense of urgency and no fear,” Bryant said of World Peace.
Was Bryant’s comment a slap in the face to Pau Gasol and the Lakers young center, Andrew Bynum? Absolutely. Was it necessary? Totally. For Bryant, success is valued in the number of titles one accumulates. It’s part of his #Kobesystem philosophy. Like the latest campaign for his Nike sneaker demonstrates, Bryant’s firm belief in mastering “success at success at success” is deeply routed in his pursuit of excellence. Over the years, the Black Mamba has become a different animal, but still remains the same beast. If the ultimate goal of winning a championship isn’t attained, in Kobe’s eyes, the entire season is viewed as a complete failure. He plays to win. And he expects his teammates, he goes to battle with night in and night out, to possess or adopt the same mindset.
Kobe has shown legendary durability for a player of his type. His streak of excellence is virtually unmatched. While Bryant’s only 33, he’s in his 16th full NBA season, including two lockout-shortened ones. He’s played the equivalent of more than two and a half seasons in postseason games alone. By comparison, Michael Jordan played only 13 full seasons and only 11 were in his prime with the Chicago Bulls dynasties. In fact, Kobe has played 34 more postseason games than Jordan –and counting. But Jordan never lost in the Finals. And Kobe has– to the Boston Celtics in the 2008 Finals. MJ has always been Bryant’s measurement of success in basketball and has served as his greatest-inspiration, as well as his primary target to catch. But as the Lakers continue to struggle this postseason, Kobe’s pursuit of MJ may fall short.
This season, Bryant averaged 27.9 points per game –his sixth best scoring average of his career– second only to Durant’s 28.3 ppg, who Kobe conceded the scoring title to by sitting out the last game of the regular season. To nearly lead the league in scoring in his 16th season is unprecedented. According to ESPN Stats & Info, heading into this season, the highest scoring average for a player in his 16th season or later was 23.4 ppg by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1985-86. The highest average for a guard that late in his career was 14.8 ppg by Reggie Miller. Which means Bryant is still a bad man on the court, but without the right pieces around him, the individual accolades mean nothing to Bryant if the Lakers get knocked out of the playoffs. Kobe is trying to lead the Lakers to their third championship in four years. And to do so he will need an all around team effort, especially from Gasol and Bynum, who have both, turned in subpar performances this postseason.
Now Bryant and the Lakers will have to get past Durant and the juggernaut Thunder. For the first time in a while, the Lakers are the underdogs in a playoff series. It’s the veteran and playoff-tested Lakers versus the young and athletic OKC– who is exacting revenge for their 2010 playoff loss to the Lakers. Does the Black Mamba have enough in his arsenal to will his team passed the mighty Thunder– and ultimately to the crown?