Last Wednesday night in Portland, Kobe Bryant carried the Lakers for the first three quarters, hitting from all over the court. Then, in the fourth, he got Pau Gasol involved, and together they delivered the kill shot to the Blazers in a must-win game for L.A. His line that night: 48 minutes, 14-27 for 47 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
It was insanity. It was baffling.
Particularly after playing 45 minutes a game in the previous five games.
But it wasn't that surprising. The longer Kobe's kept going like this, the more normal games like that have become. "That's just Kobe doing Kobe things," we say.
Whether it's playing through injuries that would've sidelined 80 percent of other superstars, playing at a higher level than (almost) everyone else for longer than anyone thought possible, or giving the greatest interviews in NBA history, over and over again. None of it makes us blink anymore.
Until Friday night, when he was in the middle of playing another full 48 minutes, battling through multiple injuries, carrying the Lakers, etc. And his body finally snapped, and we all had to stop and blink at once as he fought through tears and admitted his season was over.
It was our collective reminder: "Ohhhhhh, right, he is human."
There have been plenty of doctors who have come out to tell the world that an Achilles injury has nothing to do with wear and tear and Kobe's injury could've happened to anyone at any time. I will never, ever believe them. It's just too hard to look at the minutes he was playing and not see a connection to the freak accident Friday night.
That doesn't mean it's Mike D'Antoni's fault for playing him too much. Blame Jim Buss, maybe, for not hiring Phil Jackson, the only coach on earth who could've told Kobe to sit down. But outside of Phil ... of course nobody could tell Kobe to sit down. Not D'Antoni, Mitch Kupchak, or anyone else. That's where he is in his career now, and look at Wednesday night in Portland. Even after five months playing like this, he was (somehow) making it work.
Then all the work caught up to him. (Again: Smart people disagree here, and we'll never know for sure whether playing more minutes than ever AND playing through various nagging injuries sparked the Achilles injury. For now, let's agree to disagree if you think it was all a coincidence.)
In the immediate aftermath, you had people mourning the loss of Kobe, saying he didn't deserve to go out this way, and the NBA will miss him. Which raises two points:
- If Kobe went out this way, it would be perfect. He went out pushing himself beyond human limits, carrying the Lakers, and fighting to the bitter end, long after it became obvious that his team didn't have any reasonable shot at a title.
- Kobe's not going out this way.
The Lakers won't amnesty him for reasons that Tom Ziller outlined this weekend. They should think about it -- Kobe's due $30 million next year -- but the biggest reason they won't do it is because Jim Buss can't risk running off the most popular Laker since Magic Johnson and having him end up on a rival by the middle of next season. Lakers fans already hate Jim Buss for plenty of good reasons, but running off Kobe would pretty much guarantee he's a villain in L.A for life.
So if he's not getting amnestied ... prepare to see Kobe back with the Lakers sooner than anyone thinks. Like, opening night. Or at least by New Year's Day.
Remember: Kobe is not a normal human. If Friday proved he's not actually indestructible and supernatural, he's still not a balanced individual. It's why we've come to love him after all these years. His Facebook post was the best, craziest thing on the internet this weekend. And his obsession with dominating the world has always been his greatest strength one minute and his greatest weakness the next. This is how his entire career's gone.
- As a young player his cockiness made him too petulant and stubborn to trust.
- Eventually that "cockiness" became "confidence in the clutch" and he was the perfect sidekick for Shaq, hitting big shots over and over during L.A.'s run to three titles.
- Then Kobe's attitude was a problem again, he drove those title teams apart, and it all ended with him gunning for titles in no-man's land with Slava Medvedenko instead of Shaq.
- Then Pau and Lamar Odom showed up, Kobe got the pieces for another title run and the Lakers became unstoppable all over again.
This season, too. He was too stubborn to give up on this season after an absolute cluster f**k those first few months, he fought through injuries to keep them within striking distance, then he pushed himself too hard at the end. Now, here we are.
Next year? He'll be back and maybe better. Because he's not old enough to retire, because the Lakers will bring back a healthy core for another title run and because he's Kobe Bryant, the one NBA player most likely to spend an offseason killing himself in some German laboratory and fueling every workout with 10,000 imaginary doubters until he comes back healthier and stronger than ever, two or three months earlier than expected.
His entire career, Kobe's radioactive relationship with reality and his own limits have boiled over every few years and pushed him and the Lakers into various corners, casting doubt on the future every time. If that's what happened Friday and now everyone's wondering about the future again, we should remember the bigger picture with Kobe.
The same psychotic approach that pushed him to the breaking point this year is what's allowed him to fight back over and over, defying our expectations and blowing our minds for the better part of the past decade.
"That's just Kobe doing Kobe things," we say when it happens.
If it happens next year, we'll be baffled all over again. But would anyone be surprised?