One left in the chamber; how will it be used?

Zombie movies.

I often find them more entertaining than terrifying because for most of my life I’ve seen the undead moseying around malls, gun stores and the barren streets of Anytown, USA like Baron Davis strolls through off-season conditioning programs. The idea that you could power walk past of group of zombies never occurs to anybody in these movies. Instead, they just trap themselves in a room with no exit plan and hope the army will be there to rescue them as soon as the CB radio starts working.

But over the last decade or so, we’ve seen a lot more zombies doing their Derrick Rose impersonations in movies. Lifeless, expressionless faces that get wind of some blood to feast on and start moving at a relentless breakneck speed to devour their opponents. Zombie movies have gone from gory relics to gory adventures that specialize in the surprise moment that makes you pee a little.

The one constant in nearly every zombie movie is the one tough guy that has to get left behind. Maybe he broke his leg and is slowing the group down. Maybe he’s been bitten and wants one final standoff before he un-dies. But the movies always leave one guy with enough ammunition to (re)kill some zombies before putting the last bullet in his own head to avoid being eaten alive by his soon-to-be brethren.

This always seems to be the way to go too. Kill as many as you can before taking your own life. Die on your terms so that you don’t succumb to being a zombie and wandering the Earth looking for a brain soufflé to snack on.

And this is where we find Kobe Bryant right now, isn’t it? He’s had a ridiculously successful career. Regardless of who you think was responsible for the first three championship rings of his career, he’s now in the Top 10 in all-time scoring and he’s a five-time champion. By the time his career is over, he’s going to have arguably the most impressive résumé in NBA history.

However, as we watch this current Lakers squad struggle through seemingly meaningless regular season games and wait for them to turn it on in the playoffs, we no longer see the same Kobe Bryant would used to put up more of a fight than (Eagle, Colorado joke redacted). Now, it seems like Kobe Bryant is hell-bent on proving he’s still got it instead of just still having it.

What’s the difference?

For some reason, there was always this fear that you didn’t want to piss Kobe Bryant off. I believed it at times and at times I thought it was complete poppycock. When Raja Bell clotheslined Kobe in the 2006 playoffs, I feared for Raja Bell’s career. The Lakers were up 3-1 in the series, but down double digits to the Phoenix Suns in Game 5. Kobe had been picking the Suns apart in that series with smart play and timely scoring.

Then Raja Bell took a huge gamble. After feeling was elbowed time after time without repercussions against Kobe, Raja decided to send a message. Raja went Hacksaw Jim Duggan on Bryant, showing he wasn’t going to be bullied or cheap-shotted by any player. This was supposed to be pouring vinegar into the volcano experiment at the school science fair. We were supposed to see an eruption. Kobe was supposed to put the Lakers on his back again, erase the double-digit deficit and end the series in that game.

Instead, the Suns extended the lead and won comfortably. The next game, Kobe went off for 50 against a Raja-less Suns squad and it meant nothing because Phoenix pulled out the victory. In the final game of the series, Kobe was a strange and virtual no-show. Sure, he had a nice game numbers-wise and played 43 minutes in a 31-point drubbing by the Suns, but it seemed like he was unable to do what we assumed would be done – make Raja sorry for challenging him.

Since that moment, we’ve seen plenty of teams challenge Kobe and almost dare him to do it on his own. Sometimes it has backfired and sometimes it has worked. But it’s always almost been like clockwork. Get Kobe feeling like you don’t think he’s good enough and he’s going to take the bait. He’ll go into hero mode and either shoot his team out of contention or shoot them to the top of the world. Regardless of the result, the storyline of how that result comes to fruition is the same.

Fadeaway jumpers that you’d only pretend to be able to make. Rocking the defender back and forth before shooting the jumper in his face. Taking the double and triple teams as if Troy Hudson were on you and firing a ridiculously hard jumper over everybody. Start taking 3-pointers like you’re Dana Barros.

These are the things you could trick Kobe into doing nearly every time. When Pau Gasol came over to the Lakers, Kobe curtailed that mode he loved to take over and bought deeply into the team concept. Let your teammates take much more responsibility, pick your spots and drive the dagger into your opponents at the end. It’s what Phil Jackson always wanted Kobe to be.

But that can only go on for so long with a guy like Kobe Bryant. Eventually, you start getting that itch. Maybe it’s when there are opinions that Pau Gasol was the real MVP of the 2010 Finals. Perhaps, it’s when people are giving Pau the brunt of the credit for the Lakers fast start to begin their latest 3-peat quest. Whatever it is, something has triggered Kobe Bryant to start doing more on his own.

The problem is nobody is really THAT scared of him at this point. I’m sure the respect is still there for many players. I bet if you polled the league, the majority of the guys would say Kobe is the best player in the NBA. It’s just that looking at Kobe Bryant trying to figure out how to dominate without having his elite athleticism anymore shows a huge chink in the armor.

It’s not that he can’t do it either. He has plenty of games this year in which he looks just as good as he was last season. However, every team he faces would love for him to try to take over the games. He’s not going to beat you by attacking the basket anymore. He’s just rolling the dice with getting jumpers on his creaky knees and arthritic trigger finger.

The smart thing to do would be to rest up for the playoffs (he’s partially able to do that with only 32 minutes per game), let Pau and Odom and Bynum (whenever he’s available and good again) to do the dirty work. Then have Kobe come in and save the day when he needs to close. Unfortunately, that’s just not how Kobe is wired. He doesn’t have to be the man because of his ego. He has to be the man because he thinks he can still do it.

Some nights he can.

But many nights lately, there are just too many inconsistent performances that leave you wondering what is wrong with the Lakers. Why are they playing so incoherently? Why won’t they do the simple and smart things that always lead them to wins?

I try not to overreact to the malaise of the Lakers right now because I think they’ll turn it on and be heads and shoulders above the rest in the Western Conference playoffs. But what if they don’t?

What if this is the beginning of the fall of the Lakers civilization? What if the Spurs, Mavs, and Thunder are storming the cities and beginning to devour? What if the undead of the Western Conference are no longer sauntering through the paths and have began to adapt and run at a breakneck speed the Lakers simply aren’t equipped to handle?

The noble thing to do would be for Kobe to stay behind, let his teammates prosper ahead and go down with some fight. He’d leave one in the chamber for himself and go out on his terms (in the classical sense).

I just don’t think Kobe’s terms are the same terms we see in those zombie movies. I think Kobe’s terms are keeping the group together, taking the lead and using everybody’s guns and ammunition for them. You’re going to have hoards of Raja Bells challenging the Lakers and trying to destroy Kobe’s brain.

Will Kobe sacrifice himself and his glory for the good of the organization? Or will he be the guy that uses up all of the ammunition and lets the masses of opposition tear him apart while still fighting tooth and nail?

I’m not sure how this movie will end, but I do know it’s going to be gory.

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