There was Kobe Bryant, doing what he's always done. It looked like he would beat back the basketball graveyard one last time, beat back mortality and tie this series back up. Kobe put together a third quarter that would've inspired immortals with its savvy. He drove to the rim and got to the line over and over again. He made plays for his teammates. He used his footwork, pivoting, spinning, beating even the best of the Thunder defenders for points. He drew fouls, which brought free throws, which brought more Laker points on the board.
Then in the fourth quarter, whether it be age, fatigue, old habits dying hard, his teammates not stepping up, whatever, Bryant resorted to taking tough isolated, long two-pointers. He got one to go in. He got another at the buzzer ... to cut a five point loss to three. That loss put the Lakers down 3-1, put Kobe and the Lakers at elimination's door headed back for Game 5 on Monday.
Game 4 was Kobe Bryant in a microcosm. Thrilling us, inspiring us, frustrating us, and ultimately polarizing us. I'll miss watching him play, but I doubt I'll miss the thousands of hours spent dissecting his every decision.
So what happened? Did Bryant seriously hijack Game 4 to play hero ball? Doubtful. Bryant might be a little stubborn, but he's long past the point of sabotaging basketball games to make a point. It's just probably a mixture of Bryant feeling like he was the best option after his excellent third quarter, and his teammates not being quite in line with him on his vision quest.
Something that's been lacking with Kobe on this team is a teammate willing to stand up with him (or sometimes at him) through all the ages. The closest person he's had in that mold through the years is Derek Fisher, and he's on the other sideline now, trying to provide veteran stewardship for a Thunder team that needed it. Without Fish to keep Kobe in check (like he did in Game 7 against the Celtics, when a title was slipping away), Bryant seemed unable to communicate or inspire his Lakers to victory, whether through his own playmaking or scoring. The lack of adjustment down the stretch was evident, as the Lakers cleared out and let Bryant isolate on Harden or Durant down the stretch, with frustratingly predictable results.
These Lakers just aren't cohesive enough to make it happen. Metta World Peace does bring it with his defense, but his best days are long behind him, and he just doesn't have the strength to continuously check Durant. Andrew Bynum is frustratingly inconsistent in his effort even when his talent should make the Lakers championship-caliber every season, and just seems to quit too much (like he did in the 4th when the Thunder bigs began fronting him. The rest of the Lakers have played ok, but Sessions (slashing), Blake (threes) and Jordan Hill (energy) are one-skill guys. The Thunder are beating the Lakers with their versatility and their athleticism, two areas in which they're vastly superior.
Pau Gasol should be that sidekick, but he just isn't the same after Bynum's emergence, and will likely play his last game as a Laker on Monday. Bryant has called out Pau for his lack of aggressiveness, but this team just is a bad fit for his natural talents. Gasol needs that low post, needs to bang down low to see the cutters and the shooters. Being forced to float around the perimeter to provide some semblance of spacing (the outside shooting of the Lakers being so, so bad) and be a distributor more than a finisher is a frustrating misuse of his talents.
Gasol's turnover will be amplified in the upcoming days, but his strength is not his midrange spot. It's his 20 foot jumper and his under-the-basket game. Would you be comfortable with him taking the jumper? Probably not, and neither was Pau. The pass was dumb (he probably should have driven), but when you put a skilled basketball player who probably hasn't touched the ball much in the fourth quarter in that type of position, he's likely to make an incorrect decision.
Bryant has claimed to have Gasol's back through his struggles, but he finally had enough after Game 5 and pretty much called him out for his lack of aggressiveness. Perhaps it's a function of nature that the domineering Bryant would look at the cereberal Gasol as the focal point of the Laker troubles, but it's clear that the two need to move on to find better fits.
Whatever was the case, the Lakers faded. And with that late collapse could come the last hopes of Kobe's chances at capturing that sixth ring.
Bryant, who generally doesn't speak too much about his opponents, has always seemed to appreciate these Thunder a bit more than any regular team. It's because he probably sees that same fire that has lighted him for nearly two decades. Durant, Westbrook, James Harden provide the Thunder with that young and outstanding nucleus that has the potential to dominate the league for the next decade.
If you were watching the game, you could feel the tension emnating from the Lakers fans. They were up, but a dozen didn't feel like a lot, it didn't feel comfortable enough. The Thunder just kept on responding, they just couldn't quite break through. But finally they started driving, earning free throws, making shots, and eventually their defense picked up, and LA started missing, and Kobe started isolating, and the doors slid open.
Westbrook was fantastic. His turnover problems during the regular season have all but dissolved during this series. He's controlled the tempo. He exploded to the rim as if last night's game was some dream, and could not be stopped by neither Laker guards nor bigs. His mid-range jumper has never been more on point. He atoned for his defensive lapses with offensive excellence, totaling 37 points, five assists, and one turnover. Westbrook averaged 3.6 turnovers a game during the season; he has three turnovers TOTAL against the Lakers.
Durant then made the two biggest plays down the stretch, leaping in front of that errant Gasol pass and drilling that triple. He had a relatively quiet 31 points, content to take a backseat to Westbrook's game for the ages by nailing some occasional threes and checking Bryant on defense late. The consummate teammate, Durant always seems to be valuing what his team does over himself, and he and Westbrook have the Thunder one game away from the Conference Finals.
In a series, you could sense something subtle shifting during the 4th quarter. As Kobe kept on clanking, the Lakers stopped scoring. And Russ and Durant couldn't stop themselves from scoring as they played off each other and each produced with either individual or team brilliance. Will and skill is one thing, but will, skill and camaraderie? That's something the Thunder seem to have a lot of, and Bryant is looking for when he scours the Staples Center court for help.
Westbrook and Durant are the one-two punch Bryant has desperately needed but never truly found to bring out his full basketball talents. They grew up together, suffered through the same hardships, and now have a title contender that should last for quite awhile in the current NBA. Bryant never found his version of Pippen, just stars who shared his talent but lacked his drive. Shaq burned out after the first ring or two and Gasol and Bynum drifted after grabbing two of their own. Some of it was Bryant's own doing, but he's never been quite as able to find players to match his temperament and mesh off his stubbornness. Too many stars in LA, too much ego, too many distractions.
As Bryant lorded over his dictatorship in LA, the flaws to his approach seem to wear down the Lakers in Game 4. The Thunder made only a few adjustments to hamper the original Laker gameplan, and suddenly it was chaos, an every-man-for-himself approach being taken. There was not enough movement, not enough flow, not enough trust. The Thunder stuck to their gameplan offensively, and let Russ and KD take them home.
Home is where they go. One win from the conference finals and a likely championship bout with the Spurs. One win away from finally conquering Bryant and the Lakers and making them the team of the past, one win away from coming closer to potentially realizing that the future they can conquer might actually be the present.
Durant, Westbrook and the Thunder are stopping for no one, not even the iron will of Kobe Bryant. Even iron rusts.