Five NBA championships, a regular season Most Valuable Player (MVP) award, and a pair of Finals best player hardware—glittering accomplishments that, for the most part, obscure the candid truth that Kobe Bryant is still a work in progress until now.
"The most interesting part about the conversation is that he [Kobe Bryant] is not really close to being done," said Lakers guard Derek Fisher.
It's hard to blast someone of Bryant's stature, even more so cajole him to be someone he's quite not.
The Game Seven of the NBA Finals is supposed to be his own personal stage to capture, as the guy named Michael Jordan never did, but his dismal shooting night (23 points, 6-of-24 FGs) seemed to mar almost the entire proceedings.
Despite the struggle of their best player, the Los Angeles Lakers emerged victorious, 83-79, finally defeating the Boston Celtics in a Finals Game Seven. Shortly thereafter, Bryant's detractors would relentlessly point out that he was inefficient compared to teammate Pau Gasol (19 points, 18 rebounds, four assists), who merited strong considerations for the Finals MVP award with a timely resurgence in the fourth quarter as Bryant did.
"You're shooting the same way you would shoot in any other game, but the shot goes off a little different, probably because of that excitement, that tension, anxiety of wanting to do so well and wanting to make every shot," said Gasol, who averaged 18.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists in the entire series.
Bryant, on the other hand, averaged 28.7 points, eight rebounds, and almost four assists per game, while shooting 40 percent from the field.
Let's be honest. Kobe's forte isn't quite akin to that of Magic Johnson's that powered the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s. With Johnson's superb passing ability as the main catalyst, Los Angeles would produce five league titles and appear in eight NBA Finals.
Kobe's advocates could wish he can deliver like that on a consistent basis, but at the end of the day, he is the kind of player who instinctively takes over games with his dynamical offensive brilliance. It's going to be off at times, but expect the 2008 MVP to always be himself, a fearless assassin that wouldn't shy away from taking the big shots at the most crucial junctures.
Appreciate him for who he is or hate him because of that. It's one or the other.
"Michael [Jordan] didn't take the same kind of shots Kobe does. You could put me out there all day with a bucket of balls and I couldn't make those shots. For Kobe, it's, what's the problem? It's just Kobe's DNA. It's what makes him who he is. Kobe will shoot a three when a two will win it and make it," said former Chicago head coach Doug Collins.
Nevertheless, as was the case late in Thursday's finale, what made the 31-year old superstar special for the long night was his uncanny, life-saving adjustment. Finally, he would showcase his cerebral facet, deferring to capable teammates when it mattered, as the Lakers (down 13 points midway through the third quarter) recovered in time to seize their second consecutive championship, their fifth in 11 years.
In addition, Bryant compensated on his inadequate offense with furious intensity on the defensive end, helping hold off Boston's backcourt duo of the energetic Rajon Rondo and sharpshooter Ray Allen.
Bryant also registered 15 vital rebounds, a rare contribution by a 6'6" guard. Erase all those in the stats sheet, and the Celtics win the rebounding department 40-38.
In a Finals series in which the winner of each contest was determined by whichever team that finished with better rebounding numbers, the defending NBA Finals MVP would ensure that his team gets the nod, and ultimately, the last laugh.
“Sometimes shots aren’t going to fall, but you’ve got to figure out something to help your team win, and nobody was better than that than M.J. (Michael Jordan),” he said.
Give Bryant the credit he is due. He tried to carry this Lakers team all by himself when the pieces around him had gone non-existent in the previous games in Boston. But then came the time for the other guys to return the favor, picking up the slack, and then emphatically, fittingly regaining their leader's elusive trust.
“Late in the second half, he started to move the ball and attack and pass. He trusted us … and he passed me the ball. He never passes me the ball, and he passed me the ball,” exclaimed an ecstatic Ron Artest, who had 20 points and hit perhaps the most decisive three-pointer of his career with over a minute left, courtesy of an assist from Bryant.
As a result, a few months away from now, they are to claim their championship rings and unveil a 16th championship banner up from the Staples Center rafters.
“I’m just glad my teammates got us back in the game. And I was thankful that I was able to make one damn shot at the end and make some free throws,” Bryant added.
Everyone has their own crosses to bear. The point is to pick that cross up and carry it.
Bryant did, and so did his supporting cast on a night when everything else could have gone to emptiness, a funk the Celtics are currently subsisting in.