Can Durant catch Bryant off guard?
Bryant is still the megawatt name compared with Durant, who is experiencing the spotlight treatment of the playoffs for the first time. Coming into the series, we wondered if Bryant would find his shot and be fresh after resting four of the Lakers' last five regular-season games and we questioned if Durant, in only his third year in the league, was ready for this big of a stage.
We thought we would watch them separately on either end, with Bryant trying to dissect the defense of Thabo Sefolosha and Durant trying to resist Ron Artest. But then the 21-year-old Durant switched onto the 31-year-old Bryant for the fourth quarter of Game 3 and 12 minutes of harassing defense later, Bryant had a 2-for-10 shooting mark for the period and the Thunder had a win, drawing the series to 2-1.
"I shot the ball extremely poorly," Bryant said of his 10-for-29 field goal total in Game 3. "I think Durant's length had something to do with it. It caught me off guard."
Bryant is averaging 28.0 points per game in the series, but is shooting just 36.8 percent from the field.
From time to time Bryant will guard the opposing team's best offensive player, but usually not until the fourth quarter so he can save his energy for offense the rest of the game.
"Sure," Bryant said. "I would Durant's 7 feet [tall] and he's chasing me around."
Durant, who is actually 6-9 with a 7-5 wingspan, is used to having hyperbole hurled his way about his offense -- he became the youngest scoring champion in NBA history this season with his 30.1 points per game average -- but not for his defense.
Durant is putting up nearly identical offensive numbers to Bryant through three games, averaging 28.3 points on 36.5 percent shooting from the field. Even though his shooting has been off, he's shown that he's ready for prime time. Two years ago the Lakers played a similarly talented 23-year-old Carmelo Anthony in the first round and Anthony averaged just 22.5 points on 36.4 percent shooting, picking up more technical fouls (one) than the Nuggets did wins, losing the series in a sweep by an average of 13.3 points per game.
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"Kobe Bryant is the best player in the world," Durant said on Friday. "Some of those shots he missed, maybe two or three of those shots were me, but other than that, he just missed shots. I know next time, he's going to come back more focused and more ready for the fourth game. Hopefully, he'll miss those shots he takes the next game.
"I just try to use my length. I don't know if I'm a tough matchup. I'm sure he's seen many different defenders. Thirteen years in the league, I'm sure he's seen defenders like myself. I just try to play as hard as I can. If he makes shots, I can't get down on myself, because like I said, he makes tough shots. It's all about playing hard and relying on my teammates."
Bryant joined in the mutual admiration society.
"He's a very intelligent basketball player, on top of being physically skilled and being able to do all the things that he can do," Bryant said about Durant. "He has a high basketball IQ."
At Friday's practice, Bryant wore a bright yellow T-shirt with a black and white dot matrix photo of his likeness printed on the front of it, Nike capturing a moment of his athletic artistry and making it wearable. He was asked about Durant's emerging superstardom, while the line of questions about him wondered how aging was affecting his game.
"During the regular season, for sure [it affected me]," Bryant said. "I played through games where I could barely walk, where I could barely catch a ball."
Bryant said he still isn't 100 percent because of his fractured finger, sore left ankle and overrun right knee.
"I'm getting there, but I don't need to be," he said before taking Friday's practice off, wrapping his right knee in ice and grabbing a clipboard to diagram ways the team can free up its post players in Game 4, sitting with Andrew Bynum for a good 10 minutes as the team stretched out at center court. It will turn out to be the best 10 minutes he had all day if the strategizing works in Game 4.
"You got to play a little different, but I haven't completely fallen off," Bryant said, opting for the subtle approach rather than pointing to his T-shirt and saying, This dude still exists, you know.
But the image on his T-shirt more accurately depicts Durant these days, a dynamic force leading a team of upstarts who will only go as far as he carries them. Bryant's team, on the other hand, has enough talent to win without him going full throttle.
"I'm sure Kobe will figure anything out," Artest said about playing against Durant.
Now, if only he can figure out he doesn't need to be the guy on the T-shirt anymore.Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.