OKLAHOMA CITY — For a brief moment in the closing seconds of Friday night’s first half, everything seemed right with the world.
There was Kevin Durant dribbling up top, protecting the ball as the clock ticked down to 16, 15, 14 … Kobe Bryant rushed up, crouched in a defensive stance, practically mugging the taller Durant. Bryant’s arms jabbed at Durant’s sides — left, right, then left again — attempting to stab the ball free.
In the next instant, the dreamy sequence was popped back to reality by the sudden squeal of a referee’s whistle. All is not right in Lakerland, and not with Kobe, at least not yet. The foul call ended the superstar joust before Durant could even make a move. Instead he walked to the stripe and made two less-than-pulsating free throws.
“It’s a shame they called the foul,” Bryant said. “We both kind of wanted that a little bit.”
“I knew he was going to do that. I knew he was going to challenge me,” said Durant, who had a marvelous night with 31 points, eight rebounds, five assists and four steals in 31 minutes. “A guy like Kobe, if I don’t accept the challenge I’m going to hear about it for a while. So I just wanted to accept it. I wish he didn’t foul. I was going to try to go at him there at the end of the quarter. But he’s just the ultimate competitor. I’m just so happy he’s back out on the court.”
He is back. But the new reality for this reluctant point guard and minutes-restricted Kobe is a tough one. A glance at the scoreboard after Durant’s two free throws told the truth of where the rolling Thunder rank in the Western Conference hierarchy compared to where Bryant, his surgically repaired Achilles and his band of mostly journeyman teammates stand: Thunder 66, Lakers 51.
Even that momentary sequence was born from that reality. Bryant’s lob pass into Pau Gasol was tipped away and stolen. His fifth turnover of the half set up Durant at midcourt for the showdown that wasn’t to be.
Bryant would play the first 8:55 of the third quarter of the 122-97 loss that was long gone in the second quarter with Bryant restricted to sitting on the bench. The Lakers’ second unit trimmed the Thunder’s double-digit lead to six three minutes into the second quarter. OKC’s starters returned and the route was on. Coach Mike D’Antoni said even the urge to get Bryant back in there didn’t phase him. He’s going to play up to 28 minutes max. By the time Bryant checked back in with 5:17 to go in the half, it was an 18-point spread.
“It’s tough,” Bryant said of watching when he’d typically be playing. “But physically it’s not ready for that yet. It’s tough, but I can feel it, it’s not ready. We just have to hold the fort down in that time and stay within striking distance and go from there.”
It won’t be easy. The Lakers, a scrappy 10-9 before Bryant’s return, are 0-3 since the Staples Center crowd greeted him with an emotional standing ovation last Sunday. The Lakers thought they should have taken Toronto at home before losing to Phoenix on Tuesday. This one was going to be tough no matter what. And when the bad injury news on Steve Blake‘s elbow came down Thursday, landing him with the Lakers’ already sidelined stable of point guards, Steve Nash and Jordan Farmar, just sticking close Friday night would have been considered a success.
Bryant started Friday’s impossible mission against the now 18-4 Thunder — 13-1 in their last 14 and 11-0 at home — at point guard because of the run of injuries. Running the offense is about the last thing Bryant needed now as he attempts to balance his comeback from a devastating injury that has broken players his age.
He opened the game trying to get his teammates involved, especially pal Gasol, who continues to be in something of a tit-for-tat verbal sparring match with D’Antoni revolving around the 7-footer’s usage in the offense. Bryant pushed the tempo, directed traffic and even once implored his younger teammates to hustle to the bench for a timeout.
He finished with a team-high 13 assists in 23 minutes. He also had seven turnovers, giving him 18 in the three games. Only Jordan Hill among the Lakers starters would finish with fewer shot attempts than Bryant’s six. Bryant’s four points were the fewest of any Lakers starter. He’s now wrapped two single-digit scoring games around Tuesday’s 20-point effort.
The last time Bryant scored single digits twice in a three-game span?: April, 1998. His second season. He was 20.
“Once I start playing a little bit more that number [shot attempts] is going to go up, points will go up,” Bryant said. “I’m not too concerned about that. The most important thing is our flow and how we play and how we manage the game. My points, I can always put the ball in the hole.”
The Lakers will need it soon. They continue on a four-game road trip at Charlotte Saturday night and then face a second back-to-back at Atlanta (Monday) and Memphis (Tuesday), all winnable-type games. Bryant said he’ll be ready be to go for his first test playing on consecutive nights.
“I’m moving a lot better, moving a lot better,” Bryant said. “I’ll get to a point soon where I’ll be able to play a little bit more and be out on the court 30 to 35 minutes. Not ready to do that yet.”
When asked if he’s feeling a sense of urgency — yes, still a couple weeks even before Christmas — to stop the skid and get the record trending upward again in the stiff West, Bryant flashed a confident smile and had the wherewithal to take perhaps a final parting shot at that one-and-done Lakers center who chose to skip town over the summer.
“I’m not worried about it to be honest with you. We’ve seen worse,” Bryant said. “You forget kind of what we had to go through last year. I’m not really too concerned about it. Our heart is in the right place. I saw a lot of positive things tonight. We’ve just got to put it together for longer stretches. We’ll be fine.”