LOS ANGELES -- There will come a time when things really do change for the Los Angeles Lakers. When they'll be down 18 points late in the third quarter of a big game and Kobe Bryant won't be able to rescue them with a barrage of impossibly difficult shots and tenacious, gritty defense. His legs will go, or maybe his shot. And then it will be a matter of how long he'll accept basketball on diminished terms.
But that time isn't here yet. It may not even be as close as it should be for a player in his 16th NBA season. So for as long as Bryant can still be what he was in Sunday's thrilling 114-106 double-overtime win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Lakers will have a chance to to win it all.
It will not be easy and they will not be favored. Actually, it'll probably be ugly because this team needs to slow things down and play at an age-appropriate pace to win now.
But so long as Bryant can do what he did at both ends of the court Sunday -- where his defense on Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook might even have been more important than his brilliant nine-point blitz to close out the fourth quarter -- the Lakers are still a team to be reckoned with.
If it feels like you've read this column before, that's because it's been the Lakers' reality for the past decade or so. The difference this time around is that it was starting to feel like things were changing. Like maybe a torch was being passed from Bryant to young center Andrew Bynum. Or worse, that the torch wasn't really lit anymore and the Lakers' time had finally passed.
After blowout losses to the San Antonio Spurs this week and facing an unsightly 18-point deficit to the younger, quicker, more athletic Oklahoma City Thunder, that's certainly what it looked like. Metta World Peace had gotten himself ejected and likely suspended for a good long time with an awful elbow to the head of Oklahoma City's James Harden. Bynum was having his third straight ineffective game against an opponent ahead of the Lakers in the standings and about to head to the bench for the rest of the game.
Before you knew it, the Lakers would fall behind the Clippers in the Western Conference standings, be pitted against a very dangerous Memphis team in the first round and maybe even ousted in the first week of May again.
But instead of panic, they summoned poise. Instead of descending into chaos, they were calm.
It's hard to say exactly how it happened. Jordan Hill, forgotten since he came over in a midseason trade from Houston, was out there running around without really knowing the offense but playing out of his mind. Devin Ebanks, who was in the D-League a month ago, came in and played shut-down defense on Kevin Durant. But mostly it was Bryant.
"You always expect it," Lakers forward Pau Gasol said of Bryant's latest late-game heroics. "You count on that."
It would take a lot more space and time to explain how he does it. How he has always done it. But it's worth noting that in his later years, Bryant sounds a lot like his old coach Phil Jackson in explaining himself.
"At that point all I'm thinking about is what's taking place on the floor and what we can do to try to get back in the game," Bryant said of his mindset, after shooting 3-for-14 while the Lakers fell behind by 18 at the end of the third quarter.
"What's important is to try and remain as poised as possible, as calm as possible and as clearheaded as possible."
Bryant may never have read the books Jackson gave him every year, but he obviously listened and internalized quite a bit.
"I think it's just part of being around Phil so much," Bryant said. "A lot of him has just kind of rubbed off on me and I try to communicate it to the guys as best as I can.
"There's certain guys on the team that have been through it. But that number has dropped drastically. You're talking about myself, Metta, Andrew, Pau, and I think that's about it. Everybody else is kind of learning on the fly."
On this team, learning on the fly now means learning from Bryant. Derek Fisher plays in Oklahoma City now. Pau Gasol is respected and admired, but his voice will never carry the same weight. Bynum isn't ready to lead yet. New coach Mike Brown is still too new.
No, this all falls on Bryant now. Which is how it should be since he's the one chasing history and legends.
So instead of resting his injured shin a few more games, he raised his hand before the game and asked to guard Westbrook. As defensive assignments go, that's akin volunteering to run a marathon in Death Valley in July while being swarmed by angry bees. But this was not the time for prudence or caution. The Lakers needed to win a game like this to prove to themselves and everyone else that they still could.
"He cooked us the last time he was here," Bryant said of defending Westbrook, whom he harassed into a 3-for-22 shooting night just three weeks after Westbrook torched the Lakers for 36 points. "So I figure, if he's going to cook us, I want him to cook me."
Would that be sustainable over a seven-game series?
"I gotta do what I gotta do," Bryant said. "I did it a few years ago [in the Lakers' 2010 playoff series win over OKC] on one knee. Sometimes you've got to will it."
His knee is healthier now. Other parts of his body are not. But that's how it will be again, when it comes down to it.
The Lakers still have a chance. Not as good as before. But so long as Bryant has that will, there is always a way.