Kobe Bryant was already a three-time NBA champion when Kevin Durant was still in high school.
But when they met Tuesday night in Los Angeles for Game 2 of the opening round of the playoffs, it was Bryant, not Durant, who still looked like the league's "next big thing." His father, former NBA and Italian League journeyman Joe "Jellybean" Bryant was on hand to see his son play in person for the first time in five years - and he didn't go away disappointed.
"It was cool for me," Kobe said, "like I was back in high school."
And just like back then, Joe's pre-game instructions were simple.
"Make the damn free throws," his son recalled.
Kobe did just that, making 13 of 15, in addition to 12 of 28 shots from the floor in Los Angeles' 95-92 win over Oklahoma City. He took over the fourth quarter, scoring 15 of his 39 points, twice restoring the Lakers' lead and - if nothing else - tamping down speculation for the time being that a handful of nagging injuries have rendered him ripe for the taking.
"He made the tough shots. He got to the free throw line and that's what great players do," said Durant, who led the Thunder with 32 points.
Afterward, Bryant was asked whether he needed a commanding performance to prove something.
"No, not for myself," he told reporters, "probably for some of you inkers."
So he knew there were doubts.
"Well, yeah," Bryant replied, "but after 13 years, you'd think they'd know better."
You would, except that's not the way the NBA and its marketers like things to work. They have one eye always scanning the horizon. Think back to last year, when a barrage of entertaining Nike commercials featured puppet versions of Kobe and LeBron James engaged in a game of one-upmanship that seemed destined to meet in the finals.
But that plotline was cut short when James' Cavaliers were derailed by the Orlando Magic. Given the way LeBron has raised his game this season, and taken on a more experienced, more versatile supporting cast - most notably, Shaquille O'Neal and Antawn Jamison - his place in the final is practically guaranteed.
Bryant, on the other hand, has rarely looked more vulnerable, and Durant was the perfect candidate to knock him and the Lakers off.
Just 21 years old, the third-year pro came into the playoffs after becoming the youngest scoring champion in league history and the likely runner-up to James when the MVP voting is announced. Bryant, 31, took four of the Lakers' last five regular-season games off to rest a variety of aches and pains - fractured right index finger, strained left elbow and right knee, sprained ankle, sore tendon and back spasms.
On top of that, he hadn't had a good shooting night since April began.
"I put a lot, a lot of work over the last month or so fine-tuning things and trying to figure things out with the stroke," Bryant said, "and trying to get it back to being consistent."
Before the game, Lakers coach Phil Jackson sensed his star had something to prove. Bryant learned long ago not to use injuries as an excuse, but just for good measure, Jackson warned his team it couldn't win if Bryant continued taking most of the important shots without cashing in a fair share.
"What did Mark Twain say? Rumors of my demise are overrated, or whatever," Jackson conceded afterward. "He had the game where he could control it."
Good thing, too, since no one else on the Lakers except for Pau Gasol could provide much help. Teammates Ron Artest and Derek Fisher each shot 2 for 10. Lamar Odom was 2 for 9.
"I had to get something going," Bryant said. "It's a mixture, kind of what the defense gives you, but also being creative and creating those opportunities. The fourth quarter is when I have to provide a spark, whether it's off a pass or scoring myself."
Bryant has been flogged, alternately, for being too selfish or too passive when the Lakers don't win it all. His greatness has suffered in comparison to Michael Jordan, whose standard of excellence has so far remained beyond anyone's reach. Yet for all the ways that Bryant set out to be like Mike, he has been an unquestioned success in at least one.
After 14 seasons in the league, he's still the one player that all the other players with designs on reaching the top have to be measured against.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org
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