LOS ANGELES – Given the assortment of Kobe Bryant's injuries, his advanced years and the declining trend in his shooting, Phil Jackson figured it was time for the star to temper his game.
"He has to adjust his game to match ours," Jackson was saying early Tuesday evening before the second playoff contest between the Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
This may have been an odd urging, given Bryant's postseason history. But it was rooted in reason. Bryant missed four of the last five regular-season games. But going back over the last four he did play, he was 5-for-23 , 8-for-24, 8-for-23 and 5-for-19 the other day to open this series. Tuesday night wasn't that much better, 12-for-28.
Still, it afforded Jackson an opportunity to misquote the greatest of all American writers: "What did Mark Twain say? Rumors of my demise are overrated, or whatever?"
In fact, it was Twain, in a famous letter to the New York Sun , who wrote: "The rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated." Then again, one doubts that Twain would've told Bryant to stop shooting so much.
Let that be a lesson to the haters, and Jackson, too. "After 13 years," said Bryant, "you'd think they'd know better."
As it happened, Bryant's 43-percent shooting was fortified by his performance from the free-throw line, which saw him go 13 of 15. In short, it was like every Lakers game you remember this century. With the game in the balance, it was Bryant's ball.
Selfishness? No. Necessity.
With Oklahoma City packing the paint and blocking an astounding 17 shots, the Lakers decided to take what was being given. "We said, 'Let's hit the open jump shots,' " recalled Jackson. "Kobe's the only one who could do it."
"I had to get something going," said Bryant. " ... In the fourth quarter is when I have to provide the spark."
So here's the real line on the game, Bryant's fourth quarter: 15 points, 4-for-8 from the field, 7-for-9 from the line. So much for adjusting his game.
That's not to say it was easy. It's worth noting that Bryant had his shot blocked four times. And while the Lakers reverted to their familiar strategy -- when in doubt, ditch the triangle and isolate Kobe -- when was the last time you saw him repeatedly stuck like that?
It's not just Bryant. The Thunder are ideally suited to expose the Lakers' weaknesses. With the starters' average age is 25, and five rookies on the roster, Oklahoma makes L.A. look like an old, plodding Eastern Conference team.
"We're well aware of how explosive they are," said Bryant.
They're outrageously athletic, and most of them not far removed from adolescence. Serge Ibaka -- a 20-year-old from the Congo, the third-youngest of 18 siblings -- blocked seven shots. Kevin Durant, the league's youngest-ever scoring leader, put up 32, and Russell Westbrook, the 21-year-old point guard, another 19.
It was Westbrook who demonstrated the athletic disparity between the teams. He came down the lane at 5:51 of the third quarter, and though he was fouled, his head was well over the rim. As Westbrook is listed at 6-foot-3, that's a vertical leap in excess of four feet.
Now, if the Thunder can find a way to run consistently -- the only way they can negate the Lakers' superior front line -- the series will return here tied. The Lakers needed a little good fortune and a lot of Kobe Bryant to leave town with a three-point win and up 2-0 in the series. On Sunday, they couldn't hold a 17-point lead. On Tuesday, they blew an 11-point advantage.
Still, you might wonder -- as Jackson certainly is -- how many times his team can apply for the Bryant bailout. Bryant's career is an experiment without precedent. No one has ever played this many games -- 1,217, including at playoffs and international competition -- at the age of 31.
His ankle hurts. His knees are sore. The index finger on his shooting hand is broken. The maladies are manifest when he leaves his feet. He lacks the burst he once had. He doesn't have those Russell Westbrook moments anymore.
"I can remember having the same feeling," said Bryant.
"We will have to shoot better to bet them on Oklahoma," said Jackson.
Mark Twain couldn't have said it better.