After 16 seasons, you accept the proposition as a postulate: as Kobe Bryant goes, so do the Lakers.
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So there were moments that felt like a seismic shift, not just in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Lakers and the Thunder, but in The Game itself. The transition is inevitable. Even the most possessed of souls, even Kobe Bryant, must bow to time. Toward the end of the first half, Thabo Sefolosha pinned his shot on the backboard. And in the final minute of the second half, there was a sequence that saw Bryant miss twice – at 53 and 47 seconds – with the Lakers down a point.
Bryant himself was undiscouraged and undeterred. “I could finish running a marathon and I’m still thinking shoot first,” he said.
But you couldn’t help but think that as a witness to the beginning of an end, a succession. Kobe Bryant’s time, like that of his team, has an expiration date. The Thunder, on the other hand, have a Big Three as good, or better, than any in the sport. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are each 23. James Harden is 22. Their time has just begun.
So when Bryant missed again with 47 seconds, you figured the Lakers would go down 3-0. You don’t come back from 3-0. But more than that, it would be years before they could close the gap with Oklahoma City. By then, the Lakers would be in their post-Bryant era.
Bryant, of course, had other ideas. If he couldn’t win the game from the field, he’d win it from the line. As it happened, he hit four free throws in the final 33.8 seconds of a 99-96 win. Those signs of his age? Perhaps they were a bit too subtle. Or, perhaps, they weren’t really there.
Either way, he finished with 36 points, seven rebounds, six assists. It’s worth mentioning that a couple of those baskets came at the expense of his great friend and former teammate, Derek Fisher. "It was the same result all those times we played one-on-one in the gym," said Bryant. "I love him, but he’s a midget."
If not for Fisher, Bryant’s shooting percentage would be even more dismal than it was at 9 of 25. Still, the story of the game was Bryant going 18 for 18 from the line. Again, as Bryant goes so does his team. The Lakers shot 41 of 42 from the line. That’s the second-best percentage (minimum, 30 attempts) in NBA postseason history (the other being the Mavs at San Antonio, May 2003, 49 of 50 attempts).
"We put him on the line too many times," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "We fouled too many times. That’s the bottom line. Forty-two is a high number … a lot more than they average. We were using our hands and fouling too much."
Another thing about the foul line: it dictates the game’s tempo. Frequent trips to the line afford the older, slower team a chance to catch its breath. That’s what this series is really about, tempo as a metaphor for time.
"If it’s an up-and-down game, we don’t have a shot," said Bryant, noting the Thunder’s propensity to strike like lightning, unleashing 7 and 8-point runs in a minute or less. "We have to just slow the game down and play our pace, play our tempo. If we control the pace we’ll give ourselves a great opportunity."
"If we can make them play half-court basketball, we’ll have a better chance," said Lakers coach Mike Brown.
And how do you make it a half-court game? You make it physical, very physical. You play rugged defense (as Andrew Bynum and Metta World Peace did), and you hit your free throws (Bynum, by the way, had the Lakers’ only missed free throw and went 11 for 12 from the line).
"Our guys did what they were supposed to do," Brown continued. "It’s a grind-out a game and you’re not going to get any better look than you will at the free throw line…The team that’s most physical is going to win. That’s all there is to it."
Oklahoma City seemed to take great pride in its own physicality and toughness. "We’re not afraid to mix it up and play defensive basketball," said Brooks. "People think all we want to do is run."
"We could play any type of basketball," insisted Durant.
Perhaps, but you couldn’t help but think that the Thunder just might be getting suckered. They may be good enough to beat the Lakers in a half-court game. But why try? Pride is nice. Fresh, young legs are better.
By this time tomorrow, these teams will have played again. By then, you’ll know whose tempo they played, and whose time it is.