From Oklahoma City — Amid a prairie-rumbling roar, the eternal Lakers debate raged.
Good Kobe or bad Kobe? With his team surrounded by the young energy of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the screeching hopes of their newbie fans, would Kobe Bryant's addiction to the ball and the dramatic lift the Lakers or doom them?
Good Kobe or bad Kobe? With the Lakers needing a lift to close out Game 3 and essentially clinch this first-round series Thursday, would his renowned postseason pops save the day, or ruin it?
In the end, fans dancing through streamers, white-clad players staggering through deep blue hugs, a building shaking in shock and awe, there could be no argument.
This was bad Kobe. This was bad, bad Kobe.
The Lakers lost, 101-96, in a game that they led every moment for three quarters because Kobe Bryant imploded in the fourth. They passed on a chance to put the dagger in an increasingly dangerous team because — stop me if you've heard this before — Bryant simply would not pass the dang ball.
On the first 13 possessions of the fourth quarter, Bryant was the last Laker to touch the ball nine times. Only one of those times was the outcome positive, a turnaround jumper early in the quarter.
He missed seven jumpers, including two three-point attempts. He had one shot blocked by Kevin Durant. He lost another ball on a bad pass.
It was Van Gogh creating with spray paint. It was Michelangelo building a mud fort.
It was one on five. It was ridiculous.
The Lakers began the quarter with a one-point lead. But by the time those 13 possessions were complete, they trailed by eight, and the game was over.
Soon thereafter, a once-jubilant Lakers team turned cold and remorseful, Ron Artest shook his head when asked if he still felt good about a series that the Lakers now lead 2-1.
"I'm not going to answer that," he said.
Oh, c'mon, try.
"As a unit, we've got to respect every possession," Artest said. "We have to respect the game."
He wasn't talking specifically about Bryant, but it sure sounded like he could have been. Three games into what could be his most difficult postseason, the great Laker is lost, and Thursday showed that he is still not close to being found.
Bryant made two of 10 baskets in the fourth quarter, 10 of 29 overall, and has made just 28 of 76 shots in this series, a 37% blip.
Coach Phil Jackson said he was surprised that Bryant did not attempt one free throw Thursday night, but why should he be? The Kobe who shoots free throws is the one who drives the lane, not the one who stands outside and throws up, in this case, 11 three-point attempts, making only four.
Others, including Bryant, noted that his game changed when the Thunder suddenly stuck Durant to his back in the fourth quarter, the first time this series that Oklahoma City matched up on any consistent basis.
"It was a matchup that caught me by surprise," Bryant said. "I think he did a great job."
Durant truly stepped up, but Bryant has been guarded by better defenders in crunch time — think Bruce Bowen — and ended up doing the crunching. Something is different here. Something just isn't working here.
While Bryant was throwing up shots, Andrew Bynum was throwing off the much smaller Nick Collison inside. Yet Bynum took only two shots in the fourth quarter, One of those was a fast-break dunk on a pass from Bryant, who said he looked for Bynum at other times but couldn't find him.
"We tried to force it a little too much," Bryant said of Bynum. "We have to strategize how to get the ball into him. We're trying to throw it inside. We have to come up with another way of doing it. I'm sure we will."
It sure didn't look like Bryant was trying to throw the ball to Bynum. It didn't look like he was trying to throw to anyone but Artest, and then only when he was triple-teamed at the end of the possession.
Bryant had as many shots in that fourth quarter as the rest of the team combined, and the final numbers for his teammates showed it. For the game, Pau Gasol scored 17 points on 12 shots. Bynum scored 13 points on nine shots.
All this standing around eventually inspired the Thunder to start rolling, and indeed they did, with Durant turning an awful game into a brilliant one and Russell Westbrook, once again, driving around the Lakers guards as if they weren't even there.
"We thought we had this game in the bag, they were asleep," Artest said. "Then, in one minute, they woke up."
Lakers fans can only hope that one of these days soon, their team's best player does the same.