Kobe Bryant and the Dunk Heard Around the World

Let’s be honest here. Heading into this year’s playoffs, the Lakers have appeared the most vulnerable since they acquired Pau Gasol.

Since going 17-1 since the All-Star break, they Lakers dropped five straight games. They ended that losing streak by barely squeaking out a win against the Spurs B-team who rested their started as they had already wrapped up the Western Conference.

Lakers Nation remained confident the boys in Purple and Gold would come through in the playoffs because Laker fans know that the regular season can be nothing more than a dress rehearsal. The Cleveland Cavaliers won the most games in the regular season only to be eliminated in the preliminary rounds of the playoffs.

Or that’s like what we like to tell ourselves.

The truth is (as much as it hurts), Kobe Bryant hasn’t played like the Kobe Bryant we’ve come to love and admire over the past decade.

We all know this is Phil Jackson’s last stand; more and more it looked like Kobe’s as well.

Bill Simmons and J.A. Adande discussed if Kobe is no longer the Kobe of old on their playoff preview podcast. Simmons argued that Bryant’s confidence has exceeded his ability. Adande agreed to an extent, citing the regular season finale as a microcosm of what Kobe has become: with the team about to relinquish a 20 point lead in the fourth quarter, Kobe misses five tough jumpers before finally knocking down the long three over Marcus Thornton to send the game into overtime.

I was taken aback by what by the podcast, as hard it was to accept, perhaps they’re right.  

In his 14th year in the league, Bryant has rarely practiced with the team, admitted in an interview he has little cartilage under his right knee cap and has already surpassed Michael Jordan in career games played. On top of all that, he suffered the worst ankle sprain of his career in March against Dallas. Maybe just maybe, all that mileage is starting to catch up with Bryant.

Doubt started to creep into my mind, is Kobe still deserving of being lauded with MVP chants every time he steps to the free throw line?

Sure Kobe put on an electrifying performance at the all star game, dropping 37 points en route to the MVP award. He showed glimpses of the old Kobe, throwing down a reverse jam after a beating Derrick Rose baseline and the unforgettable dunk on the fast break that avoided LeBron James’ block attempt.

But that was the all star game, where defense is harder to find than a teenage girl who doesn’t love Justin Bieber. We were all waiting to see Kobe do something spectacular in a meaningful game.

On paper, the Hornets are a dream match-up for the Lakers. The Lakers swept the season series and their primary post scorer, David West, suffered a season ending knee injury.  

Then the series started and things went from bad to worse.

Despite Bryant’s 34 point outburst in game one, Chris Paul played a perfect game and led the Hornets to a surprising victory.

Kobe took it upon himself to guard Paul in game two, as a result his offense dipped; being held to a mere 11 points.  Lakers fan continued to remain optimistic, believing if the tandem of Gasol and Bryant can combine for 19 points and the Lakers still win, then things are looking good.

Yet the problem with the Lakers can be found in that argument, our best players aren’t playing like it. The best player in this series for the Lakers has been Andrew Bynum, while Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza are putting up numbers fantasy owners are salivating over.

There was another twist (literally and metaphorically) as the series shifted to New Orleans. The Lakers were able to grind out an impressive victory in game 3. But game four was a different story, Paul was quarterbacking his team to another upset, and had the Hornets up 85-82 with a minute and change remaining in the game.

That’s when Willie Green drove past Bryant and Bryant came up hobbling, re-injuring the ankle that he hurt in Dallas. The TNT cameras shifted from Bryant grimacing in pain to Coach Jackson’s concerned and expressionless on the bench; the Zen Master’s reaction said it all.

In a scene straight out of a movie, Kobe refused to be taken out of the game. On the next play, Kobe drove middle and the defense collapsed, he threw a pin-point pass to a wide open Pau, it hit Gasol’s chest and bounced out of bounds.  The Lakers never recovered from that turnover.

Next: Recovering in Game 5
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