Lakers guard Kobe Bryant fends off Thunder guard Derek Fisher as he receives… (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )
OK, so I recognize that guy. Of course, absolutely, that's him.
Still clutch, still fearless, still talented enough to throw his aging body in front of a defeat and almost single-handedly stop it, spin it on its axis, and turn it into a victory.
Yeah, Kobe Bryant is still the one.
Two days after giving away a second-round playoff game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Bryant grabbed one back for the Lakers on Friday night, controlling the momentum and creating the magic that gave the Lakers a 99-96 home victory in Game 3.
With memories of Bryant's fourth-quarter collapse Wednesday still fresh, Bryant scored 14 points in this fourth quarter to give the Lakers new life, if only for 24 hours.
They now trail the series, 2-1, with Game 4 scheduled for Saturday night.
The rare postseason back-to-back could leave the Lakers flat on their backs, as they are already the older and slower team here. Then again, they were supposed to be gasping on Friday, and their veteran gave them their fight.
After losing the ball to Russell Westbrook and watching the Thunder take a five-point lead on his fast-break dunk with three minutes remaining, Bryant found his inner Kobe.
His driving layup past James Harden pulled the Lakers within a point with 1:32 remaining. His two free throws on the ensuing possession gave the Lakers a lead, then two more free throws on the next possession gave them the lead for good. Meanwhile, he was shutting down Harden defensively as the Thunder failed to recapture the sizzle that pushed them to the Game 2 comeback win.
It was a chippy game. With 4:14 remaining in the second quarter, Westbrook lost his cool while fighting on the floor for a loose ball. His elbows were flying everywhere when Metta World Peace appeared to calmly, coldly knee him in the chest. Both players received technicals, and the fight was on. Even the fans got nasty in the fourth quarter, jeering their former hero Derek Fisher when he threw up an airball.
All of this played into the hands and heart of Bryant, who had spent the last two days listening to everyone talk about how he was 0-for-7 in game-tying or winning shots in the last 10 seconds since 2007. He didn't need those dramatics here. He did it the hard way. But he did it the Kobe way.
The action on the court overshadowed the presence of an unwelcome visitor in the stands. Five months after drastically altering the Lakers' current season and long-term future with an arbitrary, misguided decision that will stain his legacy forever, NBA Commissioner David Stern finally showed up in Los Angeles.
That's right, the dude who killed the Chris Paul trade was here. He refused my request for an interview, and apparently did not want the Lakers to show him on the video scoreboard, but he sat at midcourt, halfway up the Staples Center lower bowl, in full view of anyone willing to believe what they were seeing.
When Stern walked out shortly before halftime, some fans finally recognized him, and the booing and jeering began immediately before he quickly disappeared into the tunnel. At some point, he'll be back, and Lakers fans should not forget, because history will not forget.
On Dec. 8, the Lakers acquired Chris Paul from the New Orleans Hornets in a three-team trade that would cost them Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. It was the trade that finally gave Bryant a point guard, the deal that would turn the Lakers into the sort of cohesive three-superstar team that wins championships.
An hour later, Stern nixed the deal, and it could be argued the Lakers have never fully recovered.
The official explanation for the nullification was, "basketball reasons," but the deal was really killed because of crybaby reasons. The deal was killed because the Lakers' rival owners pushed Stern into killing it.
The other owners thought the deal was too good for a team that was already too good. They thought the deal gave the Lakers an unfair advantage. They also thought it looked too much like LeBron James leaving small-market Cleveland for Miami, a situation which last winter's lockout was supposed to change.
Because the league actually owned the Hornets at the time, the owners felt they had the right to push Stern to kill the trade, and Stern rolled over for them.
The owner of the Cleveland franchise, Dan Gilbert, actually called the deal "a travesty" in an email to Stern that was published by several outlets.
It was a travesty, all right -- a travesty for the league's integrity, and a travesty for the Lakers future. One official estimated it may have set the organization back five years. I just know that, five months later, they still don't have a point guard while the snubbed Gasol has never been quite the same.
A week after the deal was nixed, of course, Paul was traded to the Clippers in an approved deal that was far worse for the Hornets, but much more appealing to owners who figured -- wrongly -- that he would harmlessly disappear in Donald Sterling's muck.
As much as Paul changed the Clippers, imagine what he would have done with the Lakers. We'll never know.
But at least for one night Friday, Kobe Bryant made sure it didn't matter.