- Tim Keown, ESPN Senior Writer
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"I was managing the game exactly how I wanted to." -- Kobe Bryant
This is an important time for Kobe Bryant, maybe even a defining moment in the man's career. That's dramatic, obviously, but Kobe so thrives on drama that some might suggest he creates it for that purpose. So we'll oblige: If this latest saga doesn't turn out the way we all expect -- with a Lakers win over the Thunder -- that quote at the top of the column will follow him the rest of the way.
It's always dicey to venture a guess at what's roiling around inside Bryant's mind; his thinking is not always linear, for one thing, and the motives behind his actions are always difficult to discern. He's proven pretty resistant to the era's armchair psychology, which is probably a compliment at a time with so many practitioners roaming the land.
But his hands-off play in Game 4, when the Thunder dominated to tie the series 2-2, and his admittedly "moody" behavior in interviews Monday have created yet another "Kobe Moment." These occur regularly -- often during the playoffs -- and are marked by mystifying behavior that makes him the locus of attention when the competition for attention is greatest.
It's either the comical adoption of a tough-guy scowl or an elbow to the neck of Ron Artest or an altercation with Raja Bell that Bell said Kobe instigated (but Bell definitely finished). There's a chance these actions are intended as self-motivation: He's so good he has to create adversity to overcome it. It's possible, and he might not even be aware he's doing it.
Here's the obligatory disclaimer: The talent must be respected. He is among the two or three best players of the post-Jordan generation -- Kobe or LeBron? Dwyane on the outside? Have at it. There's no wrong answer. But there's just enough unpredictability there for a lot of fans and opponents to remain at arm's length. He is marketable but not embraceable.
Saturday night was the perfect case study. He took zero shots in the first quarter, passing up several open jumpers, and the Thunder were happy to run out to a double-digit lead on their way to a 21-point win. Bryant took only 10 shots. This was Kobe, managing the game exactly how he wanted? It was also a clear case of cause (Kobe deferring) meeting effect (the Lakers losing).
Before we get too far, there is a good chance Bryant's near-disappearance in Game 4 was a byproduct of injuries. He has the broken finger and the balky knee -- either one or both could partially explain his reticence to take over the game. This, too, gets back to a personality issue: He refused to sit out games during the regular season (or undergo surgery on the finger), which might have left him fresher for the playoffs. All agree it was his call.
(Oh, by the way: Any discussion of a series win by the Thunder being the greatest upset in NBA playoff history is misguided. Two of the three first-round 8 over 1 upsets -- Warriors over Mavs in '07, Nuggets over Sonics in '94 -- were bigger. The difference between No. 1 and No. 8 in the Western Conference -- seven wins -- does not portend history. It would be a major upset, shocking more for the reputations of the teams involved than the respective talents on the court.)
Here's a theory: Kobe took the night off in Game 4. His body is run down, and maybe he feels it's got two more games left in it this series. Why not go the get-everybody-involved route in Oklahoma City for Game 4, see how it pans out, and then take two full days off before heading home for Game 5 and the real make-or-break stretch of the series? If it works, great. If not, he's rested and ready, the series is only tied, and he can reassert his dominance in Game 5. Maybe that's the subtext of the "managing the game" comment.
It's obvious in a slack-jawed, jersey-number IQ kind of way to state that Kobe is the difference between the two teams. And the reward for conserving in Game 4 in order to unleash 40 Tuesday night in Game 5 is greater than the risk -- although it's hard to see how catching a pass and shooting a wide-open 3 is less strenuous than taking that pass, dribbling toward the lane and passing out to Pau Gasol for another failed 20-footer.
But Kobe denied his odd performance was a result of his injuries or a calculated move to manage the gas left in the tank. He said it was strictly a strategy move, and Phil Jackson concurred. Aside from calling into question Bryant's fitness for a future coaching position, this tactical decision is consistent with other Kobe Moments, when the get-everybody-involved strategy serves to bolster his agenda. See what happens when I take a step back?
In other words, it sometimes seems he's the rare great player who feels the need to prove his greatness by not being great. It's selflessness as selfishness, a feat very few at his level are able -- or willing -- to pull off.