"This is an important time for Kobe Bryant, maybe even a defining moment in the man's career."
-Tim Keown, ESPN
All the great players to set foot on a basketball court share two qualities. They get better with age. And they get worse with age.
Extraordinary NBA careers move in an arc. Superstars enter the league as raw talents, growing into their potential over time. After they reach their peak, the wear and tear of hundreds of games, thousands of hard fouls, and countless miles on the court overcomes their accumulated basketball acumen, and they gradually lose ground to a new generation of rising elites.
On rare occasions, an all-time great at the tail end of his career meets a young star with nearly limitless potential, and fans are treated to the spectacle of the old giving way to the new. This month, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant have provided that rare and remarkable show, offering lovers of the game a window into what makes an athlete transcendent.
Bryant, 31, is an NBA legend, the best guard since Michael Jordan and the biggest offensive force of the last decade. His resume includes four NBA titles, one MVP award, and 1,201 career games. But this season, the last statistic has been by far the most relevant. Struggling through a broken finger and a balky ankle, Bryant missed nine games in the regular season, his most in five years. When he was active, he played a more horizontal style than in past seasons, his usual breakneck drives to the basket replaced with a cautious perimeter game. Only late in close games did the Bryant of old briefly reemerge in the form of a last-second basket or a clutch steal.
The 21-year-old Durant played all 82 games and became the biggest scoring machine in the NBA. In just his third season in the league, Durant averaged more points per game (30.1) than anyone, including LeBron James. The youngest scoring champion in NBA history established himself as an all-purpose offensive juggernaut, capable of racking up points at will from anywhere on the court.
Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers, the defending champs, earned the Western Conference's top seed and were expected to roll over Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. But even though the Lakers captured the first two games of the series, the Thunder maintained one telling advantage: They're younger. Much younger, with an average age of 24.7 to the Lakers' 27.8.
The Thunder looked more than three years younger in Games 3 and 4, winning both to even the series at two games apiece. Game 4 was a 110-89 romp that was actually more lopsided than the final score suggests.
The larger story has been the battle of superstars, which went to Durant in Oklahoma City's two wins. Both players attempted 86 shots in the first four games, but Bryant scored 11 fewer points and grew worse in each contest. Durant outscored Bryant in both Thunder victories, skillfully getting his points against shutdown defender Ron Artest while Bryant fought his uncooperative body.
Watch the two players for a game—for a quarter—and see greatness through athleticism meet greatness through experience. Durant plays with the reckless abandon of a young talent, going after every rebound and attacking defenders with lightning-quick drives to the basket. His legs are in every jump shot, and he is above the rim on every possession. If Durant's play looks effortless, it's because it usually is. He's that talented, that athletic, and that young.
Bryant's game is subtler, the product of legs, arms, and fingers that work only so well. While he's not flying after every loose ball or shooting nearly as much, he provides countless intangibles. One possession he'll slap the ball away from an unsuspecting Durant; the next he'll draw a double-team and find an open shooter. And every few minutes—and more often in the fourth quarter—he'll nail a contested eighteen-footer no one else can hit. In some ways, it's even more impressive than Durant's scoring outbursts because Bryant relies on intelligence, experience and heart to make up for the athleticism he once had.
In Tuesday's Game 5, experience beat youth in a landslide. Bryant put on a clinic in minimalism, dominating the game despite taking only nine shots. Shutting down Thunder guard Russell Westbrook and dishing out a team-high seven assists, Bryant made his 13 points seem like an afterthought in the epitome of an all-around performance. "Tonight he's doing it all," gushed TNT announcer Kevin Harlan. "His fingerprints are all over this game." When Bryant exited for good late in the third quarter, the Lakers were ahead 81-53, cruising to a 111-87 victory and a 3-2 series lead.
Durant led the Thunder with 17 points. But he made just five of 14 shots and was repeatedly frustrated by the stifling defense of Bryant and Artest.
The last time a rising star faced an aging but determined legend in the playoffs, Jordan's youth won out over Magic Johnson's experience in the 1991 NBA Finals. Thanks to his downsized approach to greatness, Bryant is a win away from scoring one for the aged.