So, the Thunder want to force Kobe Bryant out of his game.
Oklahoma City will double and triple team him to limit his dominance. The Thunder hopes the strategy will force him into a role as facilitator. The brash and aggressive combination of James Harden and Thabo Sefolosha try to goad the Lakers' star into needlessly throwing up shots.
Oh, it works sometimes. Only three days ago, Bryant's fourth-quarter disappearance gave the Thunder a second victory in the Western Conference best-of-seven semifinal series. But in the Lakers' 99-96 win Friday over the Thunder in Game 3, Bryant proved once again that he's not backing down.
His 36 points on nine-of-25 shooting showed he might stumble the same way he jokingly did when he collapsed on the podium and proclaimed, "My bones aren't as flexible as they used to be." Yet, he still appears willing to take some unsuccsesful charges despite proclamations earlier this week that he doesn't stoop to that level.
His turnover to Russell Westbrook gave the point guard a fastbreak dunk and the Thunder a five-point lead with three minutes left in the fourth quarter. Yet, Bryant responded by scoring past Harden on a layup, hitting four consecutive free throws and lighting up Derek Fisher on consecutive jumpers.
Bryant missed his last five shots in the Game 2 loss to Oklahoma City. He committed two costly turnovers. He couldn't even get open on the final play. It might be a sign that the Thunder is zeroing in on Bryant. But he's still fighting back successfully.
"You have to take the good with the bad," Bryant said. "Mentally that just doesn't bother me. There's going to be games where I win them and there's going to be games where I lose them. When I lose them, everybody is going to criticize them and say what they have to say. But I don't care. I take it like a champ. I forgot about the last game already. I just come out and do my job and move on to the next one."
That next one happens to be Game 4 when the Lakers host the Thunder at Staples Center on Saturday night, only 24 hours after scratching and clawing to victory in Game 3.
Bryant can't really go back to the 1999 NBA playoffs for inspiration on how to play a back-to-back playoff game. Then, the Lakers lost in a four-game sweep to the San Antonio Spurs. Bryant was an energetic 21-year-old entering his fourth NBA season. Now, Bryant is in his 16th season and trying to delay the Lakers' predicted fall from NBA supremacy so he can latch onto winning his sixth ring.
"He's obviously no starnger to having some failures," Bynum said. "But obviously he always comes back with an attitude that he'll dominate. Tonight he came out and dominated."
It hardly looked easy, though.
Every one of Bryant's jumpers required him to create separation either through footwork to throw a defender off balance or elevation to get a clear look at the basket. Bryant's layup over Harden required that he lean into Harden to create a favorable angle. Even with his poor shooting numbers, Bryant maintained his aggressiveness and cashed in on all 18 of his free throws.
His Game 3 performance perfectly epitomized how the Lakers have to beat the Thunder with grit instead of dazzling plays. Bryant's willingness to tap into his insatiable competitive juices shows how the Lakers have to play with desire when the energy isn't there. His insistance on refusing to accept the end is coming provides the Lakers' blueprint on surviving a series many believe the Thunder will soon win.
"It's not taxing; it's fun," Bryant said. "It's a challenge. We all enjoy that. I certainly do. You want to be against an opponent that you respect and you know is going to bring it physically and mentally. It's extremely enjoyable."