OKLAHOMA CITY -- I was thinking, as I watched L.A. Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant on Monday, how little it mattered his 33 years, his fading youth. Whatever else has faded, Kobe still has that ability to bend a basketball court to his will, to make us say wow, to dominate like few since Jordan.
And so he reminded us again Monday.
Here was a guy fighting for his legacy, for his sixth ring, acknowledging he is 33 and the uncertainty that brings and yet unwilling to concede anything because of age. He scored 42 points and fought and attacked, even long after defeat was guaranteed.
Being media, we immediately attached narrative to this 106-90 loss that sent the Lakers to another early offseason. We had seen a changing of the guard, after all. The young and talented Oklahoma City Thunder were ascending to the Western Conference finals and Kobe and his Lakers time had passed, or so we tried to say.
Kobe was having none of this, refusing as always to be defined by others limits.
Im not fading into the shadows, if that is what youre asking, he interrupted when the inevitable subject of the changing of guard was broached. Im not going anywhere. Were not going anywhere. This is not one of those things where the Bulls beat the Pistons and the Pistons disappear forever. Im not going for that (expletive).
He talked exactly as he had played Game 5 unbowed, defiant. He desperately wanted this game, a desperation that showed in how he attacked with a fury rarely displayed. He was burying shots fadeaways, jumpers with a hand in his face, baseline drives, matching Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook shot for shot and doing so with little help. Watching felt almost like a highlight reel for me, vintage Kobe moves from his younger years trotted out for this special occasion of trying to save the season.
Here he was at 33, above the rim, finishing plays with dunks. As in plural. My favorite had to be the unbelievable reverse dunk, a reminder of what used to be a daily portion of his game.
As I watched, I thought this is a guy who does not know how many more shots at this he is going to get, who does not know with this Laker roster and cap issues if this is his last best chance. That is why he is attacking and desperate and so incredibly reminiscent of his younger self.
Did he think this, I asked.
Not during the game, he said. He then talked about not being 21 and having endless chances. He talked of being 33 and impatient and unsure if changes need to be made. What he eventually returned to was defiant.
Im not the most patient of people, and the organization is not particularly patient either, he said. Come hell or high water, we will be there again.
Kobe had single-handedly given L.A. a chance in Game 5 against a younger, better and deeper Oklahoma City team. His legs looked to be betraying him, though, as this game dragged on. He needed a break. So he sat to start the fourth quarter.
Ive got to be able to rest Kobe a few minutes here and there, Lakers coach Mike Brown said afterward.
He would think so. He would be wrong.
Kobe missed just 89 seconds. In fact, he was at the scorers table desperately trying to check back in when Durant banged down the 3-pointer that ended it.
Thats what we do. Thats our rotation and thats the right rotation to make, Kobe said, refusing cheap second guesses of Brown.
What also is true: When he returned, the game was gone.
I believe we learn a lot about a player, great players in particular, when a game is lost. What do they do when they know they can not win? In the case of Kobe, he just kept coming Monday.
You do not have to like him. You have to respect him.
In Game 5, Bryant demonstrated why he has been and remains the best player since Jordan. It is not only scoring 42 points on 18-of-33 shooting. It was all of the ways he did it the pull-up jumpers, the drives, the dunks. All he seemed to be missing was a reliable group of running buddies.
Andrew Bynum disappointingly disappeared.
Pau Gasol was only mildly helpful.
In the immediate aftermath, questions already were being asked about whats next and whether changes were needed. Kobe wisely kept saying I dont know and deferring to general manager Mitch Kupchak and his ability to make offseason magic.
He had better. He is going to need it.
The Lakers have cap problems, and gaping holes. They do not want to waste Kobes final years with this mess, yet his contract limits what is fiscally possible to do.
Trading Gasol seems a likely answer since A) L.A. already tried that in the Chris Paul debacle; B) He is due to make 19 mil next season and the season after that; C) He did not adjust well to being the third option behind Bynum and was not all that aggressive in the series.
Good luck with all of that, Mitch.
Of course, a few whispers already had been forming before Game 5 that maybe Kobe has started to fade. Maybe, age and a seemingly endless stream of games have taken their toll. They are not mistaken. He is no longer what he once was. I know this is right.
Yet as I watched him Monday, I could not help think how little it mattered and how right he is. He is not fading into the shadows. He does not know how to go out that way.