- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
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The play was set up the same way as Michael Jordan's most famous in-game dunk.
Jordan had the ball on the baseline with a body between him and the basket when he dribbled back toward the wing, tricking his defender into believing he was retreating for the splittest of seconds. He instantly spun back toward the rim, toeing the sideline like a tightrope, and threw down a vicious dunk on an utterly defenseless center who stepped up to help.
Fast-forward 19 years to Tuesday night midway through the third quarter between the Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder. Kobe Bryant is Michael Jordan. Staples Center, with its light shining on the athletes on the court and dimming out the faces in the crowd, is The Garden. Thabo Sefolosha is Oakley. Nick Collison is Ewing.
Only the dunk becomes a hard foul and a layup attempt that rolls off the rim. The two points that come from the play are earned on two ensuing free throws instead of automatically registering on the scoreboard when the slam snaps through the net.
It's a forgotten play that probably won't make the cut-up of the game for "SportsCenter," far from the moment that made every career retrospective video package ever created in homage to Jordan.
Jordan's highlight-reel dunk came against New York in the first round of the playoffs when he was 27 years old en route to his first of his six titles that June. Bryant's lackluster version came when he is 31 years old, pushing, prying, trying to capture championship No. 5 this year.
Nobody is saying that Bryant can't be Michael Jordan. He could catch him in rings; he could pass him in career scoring; he could make No. 24 carry as much cachet as No. 23. It's just time for him to realize he's at the point in his career when he's better off emulating the Jordan who captured titles four through six instead of one through three.
On a night when his coach, Phil Jackson, spoke before the game about his shooting guard, his Jordan 2.0 "still searching to step into that moment when he gets hot and stays hot," Bryant found what he was looking for. He scored 39 points on 12-for-28 shooting and smashed his four-game slump to smithereens in a riveting 95-92 win over the Thunder to go up 2-0 in the series.
"I had to be more aggressive," Bryant said. "I was sitting back, being too passive. I was forgetting about what I do. What I do best."
What he does best is control the game from a mental standpoint, something his body can never take away from him and a quality shared by Jordan that became the lifeblood of his later years in the league.
Local scribes -- "inkers," Bryant called them after the game -- wrote stories that wondered whether the sunset was coming early on Bryant's day after his finger and knee and ankle had finally caught up with him, causing him to shoot an anemic 27-for-89 in his previous four games (30.3 percent).
His mortality came into question. Although LeBron James was growing his legacy with every dunk over James Johnson or long jumper over Kirk Hinrich, Bryant was slipping toward mediocrity with every layup attempt blocked by Kevin Durant or first step swallowed up by Jeff Green.
"What did Mark Twain say?" Jackson asked after the game. "'Rumors of my demise are overrated?'"
Bryant said he found all the scrutiny "amusing" and "entertaining," undoubtedly using as it as an impetus to challenge himself but at the same time never finding his confidence truly challenged.
In Game 1, Bryant started by hitting 3 of his first 5 shots and finished missing 11 of his final 14. Game 2 was a different story. He was 6-for-16 at the break but went 6-for-12 in the second half, scoring more points in the fourth quarter alone (15) than he did in the entire first half (14).
"I thought in the first half he took a lot of shots where he was shooting the ball in transition and difficult situations out there," Jackson said of Bryant's dubious play that led to the Thunder's collecting five of their 17 blocks as a team on Bryant attempts. "The second half he kind of had the game in front of him, and he could kind of read what he wanted to do, and it was much better."
His breakthrough occurred when he returned to the fundamentals in the fourth quarter -- hitting a spot-up jumper as soon as he checked into the game, following it with a turnaround and-1 swish over lightweight Eric Maynor. He followed that shot by getting Green into the air and earning another trip to the line for two free throws. He hit a long pull-up jumper shortly after.
The Thunder's one-point lead when he checked in with 8:56 to go in the fourth was a three-point deficit when his flurry had settled with 5:46 to go.
"I just wanted to make sure my balance was good and I was doing things fundamentally correct," Bryant said.
Kobe's most important shot of the day was an unspectacular jumper from just inside the elbow that gave the Lakers a 90-88 lead with exactly two minutes remaining. The shot wasn't highlight-reel-worthy on aesthetics, but it was because of the situation. It was winning time. Money time. And Bryant canned it as calmly as if he were putting up the shot in an empty gym.
"The fourth quarter is when I have to provide a spark whether it's off the pass or scoring myself," Bryant said. "When it was my time to get back out there, it was time to do what I do."
If the dunk on Ewing is the defining video clip from Jordan's first three titles, his pull-up jumper from the foul line over Utah's Bryon Russell was the lasting video from the last three.
The shot against the Jazz was so basic, so fundamental that Jordan held his arm in a prolonged extension, the same way a kid does when he's first taught proper shooting form.
Bryant's father, Jellybean, was at the game Tuesday, and Bryant became the same Kobe he was as a kid in Italy, studying his father play, using the basics of basketball as the building blocks he'd decide to play with instead of Lincoln Logs or Legos.
In fact, the stat he was most proud of after the game was his 13-for-15 mark from the free throw line, one of the first shots you ever practice in your youth.
"My free throws felt good," Bryant said. "I put in a lot, a lot of work over the last month or so everyday just kind of fine-tuning things, trying to figure things out with the stroke and trying to get it back and being consistent."
Durant had his big shot too, a 3-pointer to try to go up by one with 7.7 seconds left, but it went wide. At 21 years old, he's the youngest player ever to lead the league in scoring this season, the kid who's "got next" when Bryant goes out to pasture.
Durant's in his third season; Bryant's in his 14th. A decade from now, Durant could go through the same thing that Bryant is now, trying to evolve from young champion to old champion. In the years ahead, he'll have to work on the even-more-difficult transformation from young player to young champion.
But for now, Bryant's evolution is what's highlight-worthy.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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