LOS ANGELES — On the team bus ride to Staples Center, a handful of Thunder players grew curious as to whether Kobe Bryant would emerge in Game 5 as himself or his alter ego.
As Kevin Durant explained it, the Lakers’ star is Kobe Bryant whenever he begins the game by getting his teammates involved. But No. 24 transforms into the Black Mamba when he starts the game in attack mode, racking up double-digit points and showing an assassin’s mentality in the first quarter.
“Hopefully he’s Kobe Bryant in the first quarter and we try to get a lead, and then try to do our toughest job to try to stop Black Mamba,” Durant said before the game.
What the Thunder had absolutely no answer for was Bryant’s third personality, the often forgotten figure that is a seven-time NBA All-Defensive First Team member.
Bryant didn’t need to unleash the Black Mamba while guiding his Lakers to a 111-87 rout of the Thunder in Game 5 of this first-round series on Tuesday night. It was his defense that lifted L.A. and gave the Lakers a 3-2 lead in this best-of-seven showdown.
By defending Russell Westbrook from the opening tip, Bryant eliminated the player who had been the Thunder’s best and most consistent competitor throughout the first four games. Westbrook was held to 15 points on 4-for-13 shooting to go with six assists and five rebounds.
Westbrook came into Game 5 averaging 21.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists. With Bryant hounding him rather than the older, slower Derek Fisher, Westbrook had his paths to the basket cut off and was reduced to a jump shooter. Westbrook had a game-high eight turnovers, nearly half of his team’s 17 on the night, and took four 3-pointers, the most he’s taking since Dec. 11.
The Thunder’s speedster was held to three points on 1-for-5 shooting in the opening quarter and had three of his turnovers in the period.
“If we’re going to be eliminated, I don’t want to go into the summer thinking I could have done something about it,” Bryant said. “So I accept the challenge.”
Westbrook said he expected to see Bryant on him but denied that his defense had a major impact on his performance.
“I just was hesitant in what I was doing,” Westbrook said.
It’s up to Thunder coach Scott Brooks — who did admit that Bryant’s defense “threw us off a little bit” — to now come up with a counter in Friday’s Game 6 at the Ford Center if Oklahoma City is to extend this series.
With Kevin Durant neutralized by Lakers forward Ron Artest, Westbrook had become the Thunder’s saving grace. Durant finished with a team-high 17 points, 13 below his season average, and shot just 5-for-14 Tuesday to drop his field-goal percentage in this series to 38 percent.
Westbrook walked into Staples Center Tuesday having shot 55.2 percent in the first four games against L.A. and was turning the ball over just 1.5 times per game.
Bryant approached Lakers coach Phil Jackson on Monday to ask to be assigned to Westbrook.
“It’s about time,” Bryant explained. “We had to make some adjustments. Ron has been working extremely hard on Durant. Russell does such a great job of getting into the paint. I think I’m a pretty good defensive player myself. So I took on the assignment.”
Bryant, meanwhile, needed just 13 points on 4-for-9 shooting at the offensive end. It was one attempt less than he had when he drew criticism for being too passive in the Thunder’s Game 4 blowout Saturday in Oklahoma City.
But Bryant had plenty of help behind him on the defensive end.
Lakers big men Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol reverted to their Game 1 form, when both players controlled the paint and the tempo with their interior presence. Gasol finished with 25 points and 11 rebounds, while Bynum recorded 21 points and 11 rebounds. Together, they totaled three of
L.A.’s 10 blocked shots and challenged seemingly every other shot that was hoisted on their watch.
Offensively, Gasol and Bynum combined to make 18 of 26 shots from the field and helped the Lakers shoot 53.8 percent, far and away their largest percentage of the series.
“We got our butts kicked. There’s no way around it,” said Brooks. “They outplayed us from the opening tip to the end of the game.”
Much like the first two games inside Staples Center, and even Game 3 at the Ford Center, the Thunder sputtered from the start and stared at a sizeable hole early. This time, it was a 31-16 deficit after one quarter, a margin made from a mixture of deficient defense, sloppy shooting and too many turnovers.
Combined, they became an all-too costly theme throughout the contest.
The Thunder missed its first 13 shots and didn’t get on the scoreboard until Westbrook made one of two free throws to bring OKC within 10-1 with 7:33 left in the period. The first field goal didn’t come until Durant buried a mid-range jumper with 5:49 to make it 14-3.
The Lakers lead only grew, first stretching to 55-34 at halftime, then swelling to as many as 32 in the third period.
“We let our offense affect our defense,” said Thabo Sefolosha when asked about the most discouraging aspect of Tuesday’s showing. “We weren’t playing on the defensive end the way we’ve been playing so far. And I think that came from the offense, us not getting baskets at first and being a little nervous.”