- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- Kevin Durant couldn't believe what he was hearing every time he turned on the TV or radio or what he was reading every time he picked up the paper or went on the Internet.
Kobe Bryant was getting old, he was past his prime; he was finally breaking down.
"I don't understand why people say he's lost a step," Durant said outside the Thunder locker room before Game 5 on Tuesday night. "He's the greatest player in the game. There are only a couple guys who can turn it on and off like him and get 15 in a row and also get 10 assists and get their guys involved. He's probably the best ever. You can't say that he's lost a step. He's the same Kobe from a while back, maybe he's not dunking on a lot of guys like he was back in '01, '02 but he's still the same Kobe."
As Durant talked to his teammates on the bus ride over to Staples Center, he told them there were two kinds of Kobe Bryant they were going to encounter Tuesday and both could be equally deadly in a do-or-die game as Game 5 was being billed.
"You never know what Kobe is going to do," Durant said. "He can turn it on and off so easily. You got to be ready for him to hit 10 in a row. A guy like that can get hot at any time. [In Game 4] I thought he was going to [go off], but he kind of deferred to his teammates and tried to get everybody involved. It's better when he tries to get everyone involved, that's Kobe Bryant. Once he gets 12 or 13 points in the first quarter that's the Black Mamba. We want him to be Kobe Bryant not Black Mamba. Our toughest job is stopping the Black Mamba."
Bryant hasn't been the Black Mamba since he got an avulsion fracture on his right index finger in December, and he was far from it during the Lakers' 111-87 win over Oklahoma City in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead, finishing with 13 points and seven assists.
After the game, Durant, looking as if he had just gotten out of class, wearing a backpack, flannel shirt, jeans and sneakers, was still shaking his head at the notion Bryant had somehow lost his step. After getting embarrassed by Bryant on an up-and-under move and seeing him hit a couple of shots over him, Durant was as convinced as ever Bryant was still able to do whatever he wanted on the court.
"You all are killing me, man, you all killing me with this," Durant said. "Kobe Bryant is the best player in the league, one of the best players in the world. You're talking to me like he played a phenomenal game which is something he normally doesn't do. He's Kobe Bryant, he's going to come out and lead his team. That's what he's been doing for 12 or 13 years. He's a guy who doesn't need to score on this team to win games now. Maybe a couple years he has to but now he can get everybody involved."
While Durant, who finished with 17 points on 5-for-14 shooting, couldn't shower Bryant with enough praise, his teammate Russell Westbrook was still trying to figure out how Bryant's defense stifled him in the first half as he finished the game with 15 points on 4-for-13 shooting and eight turnovers. Westbrook was one of the biggest reasons the Thunder won Games 3 and 4 in Oklahoma City, and his ineffectiveness was perhaps one of the biggest reasons the Thunder were never competitive in Game 5.
"I blame it on myself," Westbrook said. "It was a different look, but I got to be confident in what I'm doing. I was hesitant with what I was doing."
Before the game as Westbrook sat in front of his locker, intently watching film from Game 4, he admitted he wasn't a big Kobe Bryant fan growing up despite living in Lawndale and attending UCLA.
"Nah, they were a good team, but I wasn't a die-hard Lakers fan," he said. "I liked the Grizzlies and the Blazers. I liked Rasheed Wallace and Pau Gasol. I always wanted the Lakers to win but not when they were playing those teams. I wasn't really a fan of those teams but of those players. They're smart players; those are my favorite kind of players."
It seems the only thing more unlikely than a Los Angeles kid who grew up wanting to be like Magic Johnson becoming a Blazers and Grizzlies fan would be the eighth-seeded Thunder, the youngest team in the league, unseating the defending NBA champions.
Despite their blowout loss in Los Angeles, Thunder coach Scott Brooks wasn't worried about how his team would react. He often relays the same message to his team that he does to his 14-year-old son after he defeats him at any of a number of sports they play.
"I tell my son, he's never beaten me yet, but I say you can't worry about yesterday's game; you have to focus on the next time we play," Brooks said. "I'm a 1,000-0 against him; that's a more impressive streak than the Lakers have. I beat him at every sport. I'm competitive with him, but we have a good spirit with our guys and we believe in what we do. Sometimes it's not good enough but we can't worry about that."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
Kevin Durant didn't need convincing to believe Kobe Bryant is still a force.