By Craig Kwasniewski
It wasn't his length, it wasn't his hands, it wasn't his footwork, it's wasn't defensive positioning, it wasn't THAT block but it was all Kevin Durant in shutting down Kobe late late on the way to a 101-96 win for Oklahoma City. Kevin Durant the future, Kevin Durant the league's leading scorer, Kevin Durant the humble leader of the team of the 2010's. The Kevin Durant that Kobe, in his mind, has to challenge head on.
Lakers fans are familiar with this Kobe Bryant, the one who gets caught up in the one-on-one alpha dog battle for supremacy. Never mind the score or the situation, if you challenge Kobe he'll size you up and go right back at you. Normally saved for a random December game against the likes of Dwyane Wade, we saw THAT Kobe tonight and the Lakers blew a golden opportunity to kill a young and inexperienced team and possibly sweep the Thunder. I'll be frank...
This loss was solely on Kobe!
I hate saying that considering all the wins he got the Lakers over the years, but with all the greatness and clutch moments you get a game like tonight. This is the price of Kobe, being the ultimate competitor... correction being THE ultimate competitor in the NBA, he'll always take a challenge head on. This is who he is. This is the person that makes the player. The only problem is that this player cost the Lakers a playoff game tonight.
Stats and shot charts won't tell the story. Watch the game again. Late in the 4th, Scott Brooks for some reason put Kevin Durant on Kobe. A confusing (Durant never defends Kobe) yet brilliant move by the 2009-10 coach of the year. But Brooks saw a fatigued Kobe and put a VERY long and athletic Durant on him late. Maybe he knew Kobe always had trouble against length. Just look back at the 2008 Finals with James Posey or the 2007 first round against Shawn Marion (even 2006 Marion defended Kobe just enough in Game 6 to save the Suns season), Kobe challenged those two and came up short. Scott Brooks earned his COY award tonight with that move. Well played... well played.
So what happened? Kobe took Durant on every possession down the stretch. Forget that Bynum was being fronted and was prime for a lob and dunk. Forget that Pau Gasol had a brilliant offensive game for the first three quarters. Gasol seemed to have figured out the Thunder's defensive schemes and found the right spaces on the floor, scoring at the right times. Oh and did I mention he had a myriad of highlight plays including a sky-high runner, a sweet tip-in and even a (wait for it) message sending dunk (well as much of a message as Pau can softly send... more like a whisper... but still a message).
Kobe kept shooting and shooting. And a once dominant lead disappeared and the Thunder rode their energetic crowd and all their XXXXXL blue shirts to victory (wow how crazy, a red state is a little on the plus size!).
Kobe will bounce back for Game 4. He's smart enough to see the error in his ways. What bothers me (and should bother him) is that he caught caught up in the mano-a-mano battle with Durant instead of playing within himself. He should have found Bynum and Gasol down low, he should have pulled Odom to the side for a pep talk and he should have led his TEAM to victory.
Save the alpha dog battles for the regular season or the trophy presentation and not in the middle of a playoff game.
PS - Oh and don't think I didn't forget about you Lamar! Last season it took until the Western Conference Finals before you joined the Lakers. They need you sooner, feel free to play.
PS2 - And the Thunder got EVERY call. This was expected. Stern is HUGE friends with their owner Cletus Johnson and with Durant as the superstar of the future I'm not surprise to see some "home cooking" tonight. But the calls were so one-sided that it actually affected the Lakers defensive aggression in the 3rd quarter. They stopped closing the lanes on drives because the Thunder got freethrows on EVERY drive. And OKC is smart enough to take advantage.
That said, the Lakers still win if Kobe didn't get into it with Durant.