Prior to Game 5 of the first-round series between the defending NBA champion and top-seeded L.A. Lakers and the eighth-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder, Kobe Bryant was asked by one of the reporters if the Lakers felt that their backs were against the wall.
In classic Bryant response, he replied: “Backs against the wall? What’s going on around here? It’s 2-2!”
After Tuesday night, make that 3-2 in favor of the Lakers.
Behind a suffocating defense and a highly efficient offense, the Lakers lowered the boom on the Thunder, 111-87, in Game 5 at Staples Center in a game L.A. led from start to finish.
Bryant authored the blowout on both ends of the court, sending a clear message to his teammates, Oklahoma City and the rest of the league that the Los Angeles Lakers are still the lords of the rings and The Black Mamba still has plenty of venom.
Bryant set the tone for the evening when he took on the challenge of guarding Oklahoma City’s lightning quick point guard Russell Westbrook. Bryant kept Westbrook from driving to the lane and his length bothered Westbrook to the point where the second-year pro from UCLA became reluctant to shoot his jump shot.
With Westbrook unable to ignite Oklahoma City’s fastbreak offense, which had been dominant for the first four games of the series, the Lakers were able to hold the Thunder to 37% shooting from the field in Game 5.
Kobe Bryant and the Lakers held Russell Westbrook and the Thunder to 37% shooting. (NBAE/GETTY IMAGES)
“They kicked our butts from the beginning. Great teams make adjustments. It was tough when our point guard couldn’t get looks,” Durant said of the Lakers’ defense, particularly Bryant’s blanket coverage of Westbrook.
“I enjoy a challenge. I think he’s been playing sensational. If we’re going to be eliminated, I didn’t want to go into summer thinking I could have done something about it,” Bryant said of his matchup with Westbrook, who made just four of 13 shots for 15 points and committed eight turnovers.
Exactly how did he frustrate Westbrook? “Just being a saavy old dog, I guess,” Bryant laughed.
Once the Lakers imposed their strength on defense, they established their superior inside game and it was Bryant who got his teammates involved, setting up Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum for easy shots.
“[I was] just aggressive. Getting in the paint, making them make decisions. When I do that I collapse their defense,” said Bryant, who scored just 13 points but had seven assists. The Lakers shot 53% for the game, and Gasol and Bynum combined for 46 points (on 18-of-26 shooting) and 22 rebounds.
“If I didn’t have Pau, Andrew or the crew that I have, I’d score 45, 50 points. Then everybody will say, ‘Damn, he shoots too much,’ ” Bryant said. ” I’ve got a great crew. I don’t need to do that. I can pick my poison. So when I get in the paint, teams have to make choices. If they play me, I’d kick it to my guys and they go on and have a big night. If they don’t, then I’ll have a big night.”
Going into the series, Bryant’s health and growing mileage on his body was a topic of discussion and some even questioned whether he was the best player on the court in this series with NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant on the other side.
Durant laughed at the notion that Bryant can no longer play at a MVP level.
“Kobe Bryant is the best player in the league, one of the best players in the world,” Durant said. “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 doesn’t really have to score on this team to win games now. People say he’s lost a step or whatever, but he’s still the same Kobe Bryant.