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Kobe relishes challenge of inspiring Lakers, deciphering Thunder

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'You want to compete against an opponent that you respect ... That's extremely enjoyable.' (US Presswire)  
'You want to compete against an opponent that you respect ... That's extremely enjoyable.' (US Presswire)  

LOS ANGELES -- The clock wound down inside three minutes to go, the "2" in front being the grim reaper for the Lakers. It was two nights ago when Kobe Bryant's team had imploded in the final 2:08 of Game 2, putting them in a 2-0 hole against this force of nature coming after him -- this team trying to take him out.

Just under three minutes left, and it started again with a Bryant turnover and a runout dunk by Russell Westbrook, the tough-as-nails, freakishly fast lead guard for the Thunder -- faster than Bryant is now or ever was. It was Oklahoma City by five, with 2:54 to push Bryant and the Lakers off the ledge.

Two nights ago, it was the Lakers imploding with a seven-point lead and two minutes left, and now they had to play from behind. "We've just got to win," Bryant said in the interview room afterward. "That's it. Plain and simple."

They slowed the pace again, and flipped the script on the Thunder in a game they had to have at Staples Center to keep their season -- and Bryant's championship chase -- alive.

Two free throws from Pau Gasol and a driving layup high off the glass from Bryant, and now it was the Thunder by one with 1:32 left. Out of a timeout, the Lakers got a steal from Metta World Peace, scored their final eight points at the free-throw line -- where they were 41 for 42 -- and watched Kevin Durant miss a tying 3-point attempt to beat the Thunder 99-96 on Friday night and pull within 2-1 in their best-of-7 series.

"We live for the next game," Gasol said. "And the next one is going to be the most important game. Again."

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In less than 24 hours, they'll do it again at Staples Center -- Bryant (36 points, 14 in the fourth) and the Lakers trying to hang on, trying to fight off the Thunder from Oklahoma City. The player of his generation against the team built for the NBA's next era of greatness.

Every team, Bryant said, is trying to take something from him -- trying to supplant him, knock him off his championship pedestal. This one, though, is different.

"They grew up watching me play, and they all have the same competitiveness that I have," Bryant said on the loading dock of Staples. "So in a lot of ways, when I watch James [Harden] and I watch Westbrook and I watch Durant play, they have the same competitive spirit that I had growing up. And it's fun."

Fun. Bryant's chase for a sixth title flirting with a Game 7 against Denver, then incurring a 29-point loss in Game 1 followed by a meltdown in Game 2, and now a five-point deficit with 2:54 to play with a 3-0 deficit looming at the buzzer. Fun?

"It's a challenge," Bryant said. "We all enjoy that; I know I do. You want to compete against an opponent that you respect and you know is going to bring it, physically and mentally. That's extremely enjoyable."

The Lakers didn't necessarily respect the Thunder when the two teams met in the first round two years ago. Phil Jackson habitually referred to the opponent as "Oklahoma," and he might as well have been saying, "North Dakota," or "Mars." The Lakers won in six, went on to win Bryant's fifth championship. But the team from Oklahoma -- or North Dakota or wherever -- was on its way, and somehow Bryant knew he would be seeing them again.

Here they are, coming for Bryant's legacy. The team Sam Presti built in the image of his former team, the Spurs, is so much more than Durant and Westbrook and Harden, who accounted for 73 of the Thunder's 96 points Friday night. It's a team that has grown up together, a team that's involved in its sixth playoff series with pretty much the same core personnel, same coaching staff, same meticulous way of doing things.

"This team that we're playing," Bryant said, "just seems to go out there and play, go to work."

They're going to work on the Lakers now, up 2-1 with younger legs carrying them into an unheard-of playoff back-to-back necessitated by the lockout.

"We'll be ready to go," Westbrook said.

Bryant, in his 16th year, continues to push and prod and feel out the Thunder -- tries to figure out how to beat them. And yet he's prodding his own team at the same time, trying to discover who's along for the ride and who needs to be dragged up the hill. It's a heavy load.

The Lakers still have the mystique, still have the stars sitting courtside and the forever greatness of Bryant. But this isn't the same team, by any stretch, that beat the Thunder in six games in 2010. He looks around the locker room and sees three players -- Gasol, Bynum and World Peace -- who've won a championship with him. He looked at the guy wearing No. 37 and trying (unsuccessfully) to guard him early in the fourth quarter Friday night, Derek Fisher, who was with him in L.A. for all five. Bryant scored easily over Fisher on back-to-back possessions, by the way, to give the Lakers a 78-76 lead.

"Same result as all the times we played one-on-one in the gym," Bryant said. "I love him, but he's a midget."

Earlier, in the third quarter, you could see Bryant trying to figure out the game -- trying to discover the formula that would win it, that would keep this chase alive. With about 8½ minutes left, he ran a play for Gasol, who lost Bryant's pass out of bounds. Bryant snapped around and walked back up the court, avoiding eye contact with Gasol -- who threw down an emphatic putback dunk on the next trip.

Then, Bryant ran a pick-and-roll with Gasol, pump-faked and passed to him, only to watch in disbelief as Gasol lofted a weak, off-target lob pass for Bynum for a turnover. Again, Bryant turned around and walked away. On the next trip, Bryant passed out of a double team for World Peace, who missed a jumper. Prodding, and coming up empty.

"They were open," Bryant said. "I know where the guys are going to be and they didn't make shots. So you've got to continue to try to pick them up, continue to encourage them and instill confidence. If they see me getting down, it's very easy for them to lose their confidence. You have to continue to instill confidence, continue to instill belief that they will make good plays."

And they did. Gasol grabbed key rebounds down the stretch, World Peace blocked Kendrick Perkins with 1:51 left and the Lakers trailing 92-89, and Bynum blocked Serge Ibaka's harmless putback attempt in the closing seconds, when Ibaka should have had the presence of mind to pass to Westbrook for one more shot at a tying 3-pointer.

"Just one of those games when we didn't close it out," Westbrook said.

When Fisher was around, and to an extent Lamar Odom, Bryant didn't have to drag everybody with him through challenges like this. Gasol needs constant encouragement. Bynum's beastly defense -- 11 rebounds and three blocks -- on a night when he was only 2 for 13 from the floor was the exception, not the rule for him.

Steve Blake, the goat for missing an open shot at the end of Game 2 and the recipient of pathetic death threats on Twitter, bounced back with 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting with eight rebounds. Ramon Sessions, who had scored four points in the first two games, also scored 12.

"Constant communication," Bryant was saying on his way out of Staples. "A lot of talking, checking in with guys making sure everybody is on the right page."

"Are they?" I asked.

"We are," Kobe Bryant said. "I feel good about it. We were down 2-0 and I like our chances."

The player of his generation against the team built to take him down. They'll do it again Saturday, and Bryant is right about this: It's extremely enjoyable.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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