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.