When Michael Jordan aged, he had to rely a lot more on his guile and his will to win them basketball games. He couldn't explode to the basket, get the easy buckets that used to terrorize opposing defenses. But he did other things--crash the boards, play defense, get to the line, then close things off and come home with the win. It's how he won his final title and solidified himself as the G.O.A.T.
The same thing is happening with Kobe Bryant. You can see it in his highlight reels--the explosion comes in spurts, but the finish just isn't there like it used to be. He's more reliant on drawing contact and getting free throws (as was evidenced against Golden State, when he earned 11 free throws and made all 11). His rote memorization, his work ethic, his intelligence and his will are the only things keeping him from slipping out of the top tier of players.
But does Bryant recognize this? Or is he too busy trying to make old glory stick?
There are times when Bryant can make his presence felt like the old days. Like when Bryant is guarded by the fatigued Monta Ellis instead of Dorrell Wright down the stretch and it's the Warriors that are on the sideline. Hook him up to the rejuvenation machine and get him his points.
Despite the 39 points, it's not the effortless 39 he used to drop on the dregs of the leagues with ease. You can see the struggle in the way he plays. The lift is less elevated than before, and some of his shots are pure circus through heavy defensive effort. Only the fadeaway and turnaround jumpers (the patented Jordan moves in his later years that Bryant now has down pat) still has that deadly potency for Bryant--his three point shooting has been on a steady downward slide for the past several years, and he can't beat his man off the dribble as consistently as before.
The stats bear it out--L.A. is a better team when Kobe takes less shots (the best example is against the Spurs, when Bryant shot the Lakers out of the game early and they got run out of San Antonio in their most embarrassing loss of the season). When Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are the focal point of the offense, the Lakers are a better team, and the results on the court have borne it out.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that Lamar Odom was torching Vladimir Radmanovic, and David Lee couldn't guard Pau Gasol if his next contract was riding on it, Bryant put it on himself to finish the job last night. It worked--because it's the Warriors. You have a feeling that if it was the Spurs or the dreaded Celtics, the Lakers would've been savaged if they'd rode that strategy.
Yet Bryant doesn't realize this. His attitude has always been the guy to close the deal and take the blame or the glory. In a world where few people are willing to step up to the spotlight, his attitude is admirable, but it's high-risk, high-reward. It nearly cost him a championship when he nearly shot his team out of Game 7; Derek Fisher had to shout in his ear to get him back to playing winning basketball.
It makes you wonder; as he starts to grow older and his talents start to slip away from him, will he be able to embrace a different type of ethos as a player (one who relies on defense, savvy, intelligence, working within the offense, etc.), or will he continue to chuck shots up that have a lesser probability of going in?
Ultimately, if he continues to play the way he does, Kobe is going to probably frustrate Lakers fans more and more as they get closer to the playoffs and the further they delve into the deluge. At times, he will pull performances like this out, but at other times he will look utterly hopeless as he takes his team out of their offense. Bryant could pull these hijinx the past two years when he was still running at about 90% of his talents. Now he's at about 80% of his peak, and the decline will continue as the days and months pass.
The black mamba is supposed to be one of the most deadly creatures on the planet, but even they scamper away from human contact in order to ensure its long-term survival. Perhaps it's time for Kobe to retreat too, and recognize that the time to strike is still far off in the distance.
Or he'll keep on shooting. Probably end up winning too. It isn't like Kobe Bryant has let what we think of his game stop him from claiming the prize before.