Kobe Bryant hit his only shot that really mattered, then celebrated by slapping hands with Justin Timberlake. In the closing seconds of a Game 7 playoff win, the stars were aligning in Los Angeles once again, just like old times.
Except this was a first-round playoff series against a seriously less talented opponent. And these aren’t anything like old times.
The Lakers used to swagger through the playoffs with an attitude, mostly because Bryant would always seem to find a way to make them win. Now they go to Oklahoma City uncertain and unsure, and even Bryant may not have anything left in his bag of tricks to use against the Thunder.
He got them past the Denver Nuggets by finally getting Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol to play hard. That worked for one night, but the Lakers won’t be long for these playoffs if Bryant is forced to babysit his teammates every game.
He was smiling after the win at the Staples Center, happy to see his daughters waiting for him in the hallway afterward. That was in sharp contrast to the game before in Denver, when Bryant played despite flu-like symptoms, only to watch his teammates barely go through the motions.
Asked after that game whether his teammates had the same heart he did on the court, Bryant didn’t dance around the subject. “No,” he said. “Of course they didn’t.”
Bryant is clearly frustrated with the inconsistent effort he’s getting from those around him, though he’s hardly alone. First year coach Mike Brown can’t seem to figure out how to motivate the team, which trailed Denver in the final quarter Saturday night before rallying to win.
The Lakers under Magic Johnson used to play by the nickname “Showtime.” This group gives Laker fans nothing but nervous time.
The one constant is Bryant, whose will to win is unmatched, even with five NBA title rings in his collection. At the age of 33 he may have lost half a step on his drives and his shot can be streaky, but he’s a fiery leader who’s not afraid to get his teammates’ attention when needed.
The Lakers will also have Metta World Peace for the whole series. World Peace — the one player Bryant says he doesn’t have to worry about playing hard — came back from suspension Saturday to key the Lakers defensively and his assignment will be Thunder star Kevin Durant.
Even with World Peace back, the Lakers are a decided underdog against a young and rested Thunder team that holds both home court advantage and a 2-1 series edge this year. The Thunder is a 7½-point favorite tonight.
But funny things can happen in the playoffs. That was evident in Game 7 against the Nuggets when Bryant resisted the urge to fight through double teams and try to take the game over. Instead, he passed to open teammates and played lockdown defense in the fourth quarter before hitting a late 3 that secured the win.