I guess you can hold the toast.
For those who suggested that doom awaited the Lakers in the absence of a healthy Kobe Bryant — OK, for me — Game 5 against the Thunder was an eye-opener, and that's after 13 years of eye-openers, one more amazing than the next one.
After pulling all those rabbits out of hats, Bryant came up with the all-timer in Tuesday's Game 5:
He reached into his hat and pulled out Kobe Bryant.
Taking what he had left — a sore knee that felt good, if not good enough to explode off — Bryant reinvented himself, becoming the playmaker who ran the Lakers offense and the defensive scourge who shut down Russell Westbrook and the Thunder offense.
Of course, being Kobe, he said he could have scored 50 as easily, but thought it better to involve Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum ("If I didn't have Pau, Andrew... I'd score 45, 50 points and everybody would say, ‘Damn, he shoots too much.' ")
Actually, given Bryant's limits, what he did Tuesday was incredible.
The real story, according to Lakers sources, is that they don't know how good Kobe will feel game to game, and, said one, "Neither does he."
Being Kobe, Bryant offers only clues and leaves everyone guessing — making himself a blank canvas on which they can paint anything ... like the old charges of "pouting" that surfaced after his ineffectual Game 4.
Thirteen years later, still a wonder and a lightning rod.
For all Bryant's imperial certainty that led him to the peculiar niche he occupies, he has undeniable attributes beyond his rarely seen skill level and never-before-seen commitment.
He's all heart, to a fault. Having a little less would have saved him from 1,000 gaffes, such as playing so hurt for so long this season.
The Kobe who played with Shaquille O'Neal, was capable of pouting — although not as capable as Shaq, and never in a playoff game.
That Kobe went away a long time ago. This is his team, the one he just re-upped with, essentially for good, that will take him to the destiny he has spent his life pursuing, assuming it was his destiny.
The Kobe who resurfaced for Game 5 resembles the one who joined the U.S. Olympic team in 2007.
The other players had lost in the World Championships the summer before to Greece, which ran pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll in their red-white-and-blue mugs. At that point, the only reputation LeBron James had on defense was for not playing any.
Asking Coach Mike Krzyzewski to let him guard the opposing point guard, Bryant knocked the ball away from Venezuela's Greivis Vasquez on the first possession of the first game, dived after it, got up as Venezuela got it back, and stole Vasquez's pass, starting a fastbreak the other way.
Krzyzewski showed the play over and over. That was how they defended from that moment on.
Oh, and LeBron then went home and made his first NBA All-Defense team.
Bryant's request to guard Westbrook had the same effect on the Lakers, whose defense had been like the U.S. team, circa 2006.
Following Bryant's ferocity, the team that had previously showed great length, skill and the ability to play over opponents' heads when everything went right, came up with something new: grit.
What they'll show next remains to be seen, but in Lakerdom, or Kobedom, the wonders never cease.
Nor does the squawking.
Which reminds me...
A friend whose identity I won't divulge, but whose initials are TJS, just wrote to me, pointing out our differing perspectives on Attila the Hun, er, Kobe.
My friend is a proponent of the Kobe-was-pouting theory-in-Game-4 theory.
Of course, if Kobe was pouting, he had definitely gotten over it by Game 5, when he felt like being heroic again.
Maybe that around-the-clock treatment he was getting for his knee buoyed his spirits too!
The Kobe I know may get attitudinal in news conferences, but never, ever in playoff games, when he's Kobe Bryant, by any means necessary.
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