- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant has known for a while now how it was going to end and who was going to end it. At some point this Oklahoma City Thunder team was going to get him. They were too good, too tough, too mean. Too much like him.
"These guys are long and athletic and tough. They grew up watching me. They have the same mentality that I do," Bryant said in a reflective moment long after the Los Angeles Lakers held off the Thunder 99-96 in Game 3 of this taut Western Conference second-round series. He laughed a little, but only because the Lakers had survived this one.
"It's like I'm playing a mirror image of myself in [Russell] Westbrook, [James] Harden and [Kevin] Durant. It's like, s---. You've just got to dig deep and fight 'em back."
Bryant is clearly enjoying this series, even as the Thunder continue to push his team against the wall. This is how it should be. This is how it was for him, too.
If they want to knock him off, he should have a say in when that happens.
"That day's not here yet," he said after dropping 36 points in the Lakers' win Friday night.
Again, he was smiling. But this isn't over yet and he knows it. The Lakers still have a heck of a hole to climb out of after blowing Game 2.
And if they ultimately lose this series, who knows what's next for the franchise? Will management decide a second straight second-round exit is enough evidence to blow its core up and start over? And if so, will that give Bryant enough time to chase a sixth ring?
All those questions uncomfortably hang over him and the team right now. Each loss brings them closer into the front of their consciousness.
But Bryant has never been one to dwell on questions like that. Not yet, anyway. Not when there is something he can still do about it.
Which is why he spent the night before Friday's pivotal Game 3 at the Lakers' practice facility. After an exhausting seven-game series against Denver and two rugged games in Oklahoma, he was as tired as everyone. But a routine is a routine. So he went to the gym and shot in silence for almost two hours.
"I normally come here [to Staples Center] the night before games," Bryant said. "But this place was busy." The Kings played Game 3 of their playoff series against the Phoenix Coyotes. "Was I upset about it [Game 2]? Yeah. But you have to move past it. You have to adjust."
It has become clear in the first three games of this series that Bryant has to create offense for the Lakers. The Thunder are simply too quick, too athletic and too aggressive defensively. Nothing is coming easy.
Friday night, that meant he had to attack. Again and again, no matter how many times Oklahoma City stopped him or fouled him or punished him.
He made just nine of his 25 shots from the field but all 18 of his free throws. The Lakers made 41 of 42 from the line, which in a game as close as this, was absolutely the margin of victory.
It was a fascinating game, but it will also be forgotten quickly, as the two teams have to suit up again for Game 4 in less than 24 hours.
That quick turnaround would seem to favor the Thunder. The team that had a long break after a first-round sweep. The team that was younger and more spry anyway.
After years of raging against anyone who would call him old, or even older, Bryant has started to embrace his place in the game. As he made his way to the podium after Friday's win, he even laughed at it.
"The bones aren't as flexible as they used to be," he said after causing a commotion settling into his chair.
The whole room started laughing. Pau Gasol, who was trying to give a serious answer to a question at the time, couldn't even continue.
What Bryant didn't know is that Westbrook had gone through a similar dance with the ill-fitting chair just a few minutes earlier.
"There's not enough room up here," he said, as he pulled out the chair and tried to settle into a comfortable position to field questions. "Damn."
It was a funny symmetry. A fitting one, too. There's only enough room in the Western Conference for one of these teams to continue.
The Thunder will one day pass up Bryant and the Lakers. But so long as he has a say in the matter, Bryant isn't getting up to make room just yet.
1dAlok Pattani, ESPN Stats & Information
1dOhm Youngmisuk and Ian Begley
1dDan Le Batard