Kobe's age-old truth: Defense wins

He's more hurt than old right now. Sore and battered from a year with a few too many strains and sprains. So sore, actually, that he even folded the tent of invincibility he'd worked so many years to construct and sat out some games to rest and heal.

Not so long ago, the surrender would've been a fate worse than defeat, but Kobe Bryant, 31, has come a long way in a very short time.

He has, it seems, learned to accept this strange new reality that even he might have physical limitations. Those limitations will come from age in the future, but currently from wear and a few too many bruises.

It was uneven at first. With Bryant shooting too much and too poorly in Game 1 of this first-round playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, then passing too much in Game 4.

Even coach Phil Jackson noted that he "probably overdid it" with all that "breaking the defense down and … getting everybody involved." Jackson said he was hoping Kobe would "have a fine balance tonight," before the Lakers' blowout 111-87 win in Game 5.

In the hours before Game 5, the balance Bryant managed to strike would have nothing to do with how much or how well he shot.

Instead, Bryant raised his hand, pointed toward the kid who has been killing the Lakers with his quickness and athleticism in the series and said, "Send him my way."

That kid, of course, is the Thunder's blur of a point guard, Russell Westbrook, who had been the MVP of this series until Tuesday night.

But on this night he was again a kid, shown the ropes and thoroughly frustrated by whatever gas and greatness Bryant was able to summon.

In the first half, Westbrook had five turnovers in just 20 minutes. He finished the game with eight and made just four of 13 shots.

"Russell does such a great job getting into the paint and I think I'm a pretty good defensive player myself so I thought I'd take this on," Bryant said after the game.

"And, if we're going to be eliminated I don't want to go into the summer thinking I could've done something about it."

This isn't the first time he has raised his hand for a challenging defensive assignment. Over the years, he has often pointed out guys like Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James or Paul Pierce and essentially said, "Let me handle this."

On those nights though, he could also be Kobe Bryant at the offensive end. Tuesday night he had to work within his limitations. Whatever energy he had, the best of his energy, would be directed at stopping Westbrook, not putting points on the board.

Good for the team, jarring for his image as a relentless gunslinger.

"He's come a long way as far as being that all-around player," said Lakers forward Luke Walton, who has played with Bryant since 2003. "He's always had the ability to do it, but I think he was such a good scorer, he'd be like, 'I'm going to make sure we win by scoring 50,' and he's so deadly, he can score whenever he wants to."

Afterward, Bryant deflected questions about his health and age.

He'd scored just 13 points and taken nine shots -- a quarter of the points he puts up some nights -- because he was taking what the defense gave him, he said.

And the guys he passes to these days can actually catch it and score.

"I tell you what," he said. "If I didn't have Pau or Andrew and the crew that I have, I'd score 45-50 points and everybody would say, 'Damn, he shoots too much.'

"But I got a great crew, I don't need to do that. I can pick my poison, so when I get in the paint I can make choices. If they play me, I'll kick it to my guys and they'll score and have a big night. If they don't, I'll have a big night."

All that's been true for the past two years, ever since Pau Gasol got here and the offense started flowing through the post instead of bogging down or slipping through the shaky hands of Kwame Brown.

Bryant won his MVP award in 2008 by recognizing how much the cast around him had improved. He still shot more than anyone else and took over games in a way only he can.

It's hard to recall many nights like Tuesday when he willingly spent the greater portion of his energy on defense at the expense of his offensive game.

On Tuesday night, he made that choice. Was it out of physical necessity?

No one will quite say just how injured he is, but it's obvious he is injured.

"Kobe's one of those guys that he won't tell you what's wrong with him," Lakers guard Shannon Brown said. "He's going to go out there and give it his all no matter what's going on. He might be banged up, he might be hurting, but he'll never let you know."

Verbally, sure. But everything about what Bryant did Tuesday night let us know where he was at physically.

"It told me what his determination was," Jackson said. "Whether his knee was better or not … it spoke about his competitiveness."

And his maturity.

Ten years ago -- three years ago, even -- we would not be having this conversation. Not just because his body was younger, but also because he personally had to shred every hint or report of his own limitations, as soon and as thoroughly as possible.

He's a different guy now. Or at least he's becoming one.

The kind of guy who looks across at his younger opponent and wistfully and says: "They go. They have a battery in their bag that just goes and goes and goes. I don't think they care if they lose by one or 50. They just show up and play. They probably forgot about this game already."

That used to be him not so long ago. Going and going, just showing up and playing.

That process is more complicated now. There are more ice bags on his knees after games. And even if he wanted to forget about a bad game quickly, his body would still be a reminder.

There is a good part to this stage, however. Something appreciated only in hindsight.

Wisdom? Nah.

"Just being a savvy old dog," Bryant said.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com.