In Kobe Bryant’s world, no challenge is insurmountable, no injury is capable of shelving him from a playoff game, no excuses.
More than anything, Bryant provided one of those rare moments when he let his guard down, showing a seldom-seen diva side to the game’s ultimate assassin that draws attention to himself, which is the way Bryant used to be in his self-centred universe of years past.
When the Lakers visited South Beach during the regular season, Bryant struggled with his shot all night, saving his worst for the end when he heaved ill-advised jumpers early in the shot clock with all kinds of hands in his face.
Long after the final whistle had sounded and long after his teammates had left the building, Bryant returned to the floor and took shot after shot as a curious media horde gathered.
When the Lakers were being stung by the Hornets in the Big Easy, Bryant needed crutches to walk to the team’s bus following L.A.’s Game 4 loss.
Perhaps the toll of long post-season runs, run-ins with the injury bug and years of carrying the Lakers on his shoulders prior to Pau Gasol’s arrival had finally caught up with Bryant, as resilient and durable as any pro athlete this generation.
And then Game 5 comes along, a must-win scenario for the Lakers, and there’s Bryant driving to the lane and dunking the basketball over Emeka Okafor, a sequence that turned the game in L.A.’s favour, a defining moment that will be looked back upon as the play of this opening-round series against the pesky Bugs.
“It looked like he had his Afro back,” teammate Shannon Brown said of Bryant, recalling a now distant time when Bryant would routinely use his athleticism to flush home baskets.
All the drama surrounding Bryant’s status was the stuff of Hollywood, insisting he would not undergo an MRI to determine the exact nature of a left ankle and foot Bryant would describe as “stiff,” preferring around the clock and non-stop treatment.
The master of mind games, Phil Jackson, spent most of his time telling reporters that Bryant would be a game-time decision, a claim Hornets point guard Chris Paul wasn’t buying.
“I know Kobe is going to come out full throttle,” CP3 said. “I know him. I know the magnitude of this game. His ankle won’t be a factor.”
In terms of symbolic moments, Bryant’s drive and subsequent dunk couldn’t have been scripted any better.
As he rose above the rim, he helped the Lakers rise above the Hornets, fuelling L.A.’s Game 5 win with a possible close out of the series looming Thursday night in New Orleans.
“I just had a lane to the basket,” Bryant said. “It looked like he was going to challenge me at the rim and I decided to accept the challenge.
“It’s a message for us that this was important. It’s time to raise up and do what we’ve got to do. They’re not saved dunks. I don’t have much of those left.”
One has to rewind to this year’s all-star game played at Staples Center to find an athletic move to rival Bryant’s latest foray to the hole.
Given the obvious stakes, his Game 5 play was much more meaningful.
“That’s what he does,” Hornets head coach Monty Williams said.
“All this talk about his ankle. Did it look like his ankle was hurting? Okay then.”
In the wake of a scoreless opening period, Bryant had 13 in the second, including his game-changing dunk.
Bryant would finish with 19 points and is now poised to finish off the Hornets.
If there are any lingering ill effects from his wonky ankle it’s in his three-point shooting.
Entering Game 6, Bryant has only made five of his 15 attempts from beyond the three-point arc and he hasn’t made a single three-ball in his last two games.
What Bryant showed is that good things happen when teams attack the rim.
“The great thing about it is now we get to go back to our home court with our fans behind us,’’ Paul said of Thursday night’s tip. “And we have to bring energy.
“The games that we’ve won, we’ve been on attack mode. We have to get back to attacking the rim and getting to the free-throw line.”