LOS ANGELES – Ball in his hands, season on the line, and failure promised Kobe Bryant a summer of scorn. For everything that comes with the responsibility of greatness, Bryant can live with the cutting criticism, the besmirching of his legacy, the volume rising on those determined to diminish him in the context of his contemporaries. In losing, he could live with it all – except allowing that barrage to barricade him behind a wall of hesitancy and reluctance.
“I don’t give a [expletive] what you say,” Bryant told Yahoo! Sports late Friday. “If I go out there and miss game winners, and people say, 'Kobe choked, or Kobe is seven for whatever in pressure situations.' Well, [expletive] you.
“Because I don’t play for your [expletive] approval. I play for my own love and enjoyment of the game. And to win. That’s what I play for. Most of the time, when guys feel the pressure, they’re worried about what people might say about them. I don’t have that fear, and it enables me to forget bad plays and to take shots and play my game."
Deep down, Bryant does care, because the ingesting of the feeding frenzy that comes with his struggles doesn’t so much pollute his air, as it does become oxygen tanks of rage on his back. Eighteen trips to the free-throw line on Friday, and 18 times the ball dropped into the basket. Eight trips to the free throw line in the fourth quarter borne out of a brilliant footwork, an unending array of fakes and, yes, the generosity of a referee's whistle.
“In the pressure situations, you’ve always got to want to go to the line,” Bryant told Y! Sports. “You can try to avoid contact, because you don’t want to go to the free-throw line in those pressure situations. Me, I enjoy it.”
So much conspired to deliver 14 of Bryant’s 36 points in the fourth quarter, inspiring a 99-96 victory over Oklahoma City that makes Game 4 monumental on Saturday night. This time, the Lakers had to fight back in the fourth to overtake the Thunder, fight back to spare themselves an insurmountable series deficit and the declarations of doom that come with defeat here.
The Lakers were nasty, rugged and needed every whistle. Mostly, they needed Bryant’s ability to control the game in the low post, the kind of closing act that Kevin Durant still struggles to deliver because his skinny frame leaves him far from the basket. Durant wants to play faster with Russell Westbrook and James Harden, but the Lakers have controlled the speed of these past two games.
For all of Bryant’s missteps in the final moments of a devastating Game 2 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder – the bad pass to Durant, the missed shots, the ball fumbled out of bounds – he swears they were all cleansed from him before the Lakers' charter flight ever touched down in Southern California. Perhaps the five championships make it easier, perhaps the infallible confidence – even arrogance – that his DNA, his relentless preparation, predetermine that Bryant involves himself in the game’s most important stages.
“I found it pretty funny, entertaining, that I made a bunch of mistakes down the stretch, mistakes that I normally don’t make,” Bryant said. “So yeah, I ended up laughing at myself. I knew we’d have a chance to get it back.
“And maybe that’s what separates me from a lot of people: I can laugh at myself in those situations, whereas most people might feel really insecure or nervous about the next one, or pissed off and hold that anger for the next game. I can find the entertainment and humor in it.”
Bryant insists he doesn’t care about the criticism, but the man does read everything and isn’t above turning on sports-talk radio in his car. After games, he can always tell where the line of questioning is taking the columns and stories, and sometimes he'll work to puncture premises on stories about his teammates and himself. His greatest gift is one of anticipation, sensing where everything is going – the defender, the reporter’s story angles, all of it – and trying to never leave himself vulnerable.
All these brilliant, young talents are coming to take him out now – Durant, Westbrook and Harden – and Bryant pushed back on them all in the fourth quarter. Thirty-three years old, and the world wouldn’t get the satisfaction of watching Bryant go down without a vintage performance. He takes such spectacular pride in the armor that coats his body and mind, the armor that deflects the uncertainties and insecurities that come with the stakes on this stage. Belittle him over Game 2, and just know that Game 3 wasn’t so much about his redemption, but his resolve.
When Bryant plays in these playoffs, no one will imagine the thought bubble floating over his head in the biggest moments asking: "What if I blow this? How will everyone react?" Yes, Bryant wants the cheers, the adulation, the spoils of victory, but he can live with the consequences of makes and misses in May and June. He’s passing the ball out of double teams and finding open teammates, but these Lakers still go to him late in shot clocks and late in games.
Bring it on, Bryant is forever saying. Bring me the ball, bring me the burden of catching hell. Ball in his hands, season on the line, and Kobe Bryant promises this is the most free moment of his existence. Bryant messed up badly in Game 2 and says he laughed because he knew he would get his chance again, get to prolong this Western Conference playoff series, and that finally happened Friday night.
“The fallout is always something that makes some guys hesitant,” Bryant said. “They’re thinking about their legacies, their reputations.”
Anyway, bleep them. No hesitancy here. No fear of the miss. It is a liberating feeling, and it’s where he forever wants to live.
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