The jaw jutted as Kobe Bryant willed his way and made late-game baskets. His eyes focused intently as he defended. His stoic expressions calmed the Lakers as they nearly did the impossible in their 114-108 double overtime victory Sunday over the Oklahoma City Thunder by overcoming an 18-point deficit.
And along the way, Bryant simply made the Kobe Face. But that face came in many shapes and forms.
His teeth clenched as he overcame a 26-point performance on nine-of-26 shooting by making several late-game shots Lakers Coach Mike Brown described as "Kobe-esque." Bryant curled off Pau Gasol's screen on Russell Westbrook and made a one-hopping three-pointer to give the Lakers an 88-87 lead with 1:21 left in the fourth quarter. Bryant followed that a possession later by simply nailing a three-pointer in Westbrook's face for a 91-89 advantage with 51 seconds left. Those weren't enough to secure the win in regulation. His one-of-three mark in overtime wasn't enough, either. But his one-legged 15-foot fallaway, his 16-foot jumper after moving his pivot foot and two free throws clinched the game in double overtime.
"It felt like a playoff type of atmosphere," said Bryant, as his explanation for coming through again in the clutch.
Bryant's face grimaced as he took the unenviable task in guarding the speedy Westbrook. He shut off his pick-and-roll penetration. Bryant held Westbrook to 14 points on three-of-22 shooting. Just like he did on a sprained right knee in Game 5 of the 2010 Western Conference first-round series, Bryant volunteered to stop Westbrook, leaving Brown giddy over seeing his star player want to take ownership.
"He cooked us the last time he was here," Bryant said of defending Westbrook, who torched Ramon Sessions and the Lakers' frontline for 36 points the last time they faced each other. "So I figure, if he's going to cook us, I want him to cook me."
Bryant's face appeared calm as he led an unfamiliar cast through unfamiliar circumstances. Metta World Peace earned an ejection for striking an elbow to James Harden's head. Matt Barnes remained sidelined for most of the second half because of a moderately sprained right ankle. Assistant coach John Kuester, who often draws up offensive plays, was absent after attending the funeral of his mother. Yet Bryant proved instrumental in a unit featuring Steve Blake, Devin Ebanks and Jordan Hill in overcoming an 18-point deficit, as Brown noticed "Kobe's mental toughness fed off with the rest of the group."
"At that point all I'm thinking about is what's taking place on the floor and what we can do to try to get back in the game," Bryant said of the Lakers' tough hand, which also featured him starting three-for-14 from the field. "What's important is to try and remain as poised as possible, as calm as possible and as clearheaded as possible."
That's the mantra Lakers Coach Phil Jackson taught him, but Bryant translated that philosophy into how that fits his own personality. He kept the same fiery demeanor as he made late-game shots. He made his teammates empowered by dishing out eight assists and willingly relying on Hill (14 points, 15 career-high rebounds), Blake (three late-game three-pointers) and Ebanks (guarding Durant). Bryant did all this while acting unfazed by the challenge, validating in his mind that the Lakers' ability to remain calm and overcome a deficit makes them a championship-caliber team.
Bryant made several different Kobe faces. But they represented the same person. And all the various qualities Bryant has to offer came through in resounding ways when the Lakers needed it the most.