May 20, 2012, 3:17 AM EDT
Things change. It’s inevitable. And on Saturday night, you have to wonder if the guard changed officially in the Western Conference, and the NBA. 103-100, Thunder over Lakers.
Kobe Bryant was the closer. The dagger. The Black Mamba. As recently as Friday night, he was the ultimate clutch weapon (as long as we’re only talking about free throws and disregarding any and all other plays). And nothing that happened 24 hours later can change, alter, or diminish his legacy of playoff greatness. He is one of the top-five NBA players of all time, and for forty-four minutes Saturday night, he was the best player on the floor. He was aggressive in driving to the rim, he was hitting absurd shots consistently, he was passing the ball to Andrew Bynum, he was rebounding, he was destroying Thabo Sefolosha, James Harden, anyone guarding him.
Then the final four minutes came. Then Kevin Durant guarded him. Then the Thunder made their comeback. Then it all changed.
Bryant was 1-6 in the final four minutes, his final bucket coming on a meaningless jumper as time ran out down 5. He shot often, he shot early, he shot Kobe shots. “Tough shots” as he described them after the game. He took rolling three-pointers. He took off-balance leaners. He took every shot that you think of as a Kobe shot. But alas, they would not fall. There will be no joy on Rodeo Drive, Mighty Kobe bricked out. Five times.
Meanwhile, Kevin Durant? When Durant missed two free throws with 2:32 remaining down 2, it looked like Durant was setting up to become the latest superstar to fail in the clutch. Instead? Durant hit a tough turnaround floater to tie the game, then nailed a monster pull-up three for the win. Throw in a Pau Gasol late turnover that his him as the scapegoat and that’s how the Lakers are down 3-1.
Can the Lakers come back from 3-1? It’s possible. But they’ve now surrendered sizeable leads in two games in the series, and despite all the adjustments, all the key shots from Steve Blake, and a long stretch where Durant was largely invisible, the Thunder have won, again. They reached into the Lakers’ chest, and pulled out their still-beating heart Saturday night, and they did it the same way Bryant has in the past, while Bryant struggled to the finish. It may not have been a changing of the guard, but it was a pretty good impression.
Durant’s calm, cool demeanor and smiling face stands in contrast to the cold anger of Bryant. He admitted after the game that he was worried what people would say about the shot after it left his hand. Bryant, on the other hand, did a long feature interview talking about how he didn’t care, and that he thought his struggles in Game 2 were amusing. Something tells me this doesn’t sound as funny.
Bryant couldn’t have done anything else, though. This is who he is, and it has worked in the past and it was working on Saturday night. The shots just didn’t fall. For Durant, they did. And now Bryant watches as the next great clutch performer (if you believe in clutch) rises on the biggest stage, while defending Bryant at the same time.
Change is cruel. But it’s also unavoidable.
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