“That’s the problem with people like you, George. You want results, but you never want to get your hands dirty. I’d start rolling up your sleeves. … I’m gonna need a hacksaw.”
The instant the ball catches the rim and gentles down easy through the twine, Kobe lets a cuss go through a wince. Not even a word — the profanity is in the feel of it, the spittle jammed against his teeth by the hissing plosive. That had been his fault. Harden had gone right past him baseline.
With a flick of his fingers he calls for the ball and Boozer bounces it to him. Years ago, he’d had help. Things had been different. Hell, the world had been different.
That 6-game stint last season hadn’t been anything, not really. There were only two players left from the last team he’d been a part of — Hill and Sacre. The familiar faces were gone.
And Nash — Christ, Nash was a shell of himself. Reduced to sitting on the sidelines, done in by his own body. That wasn’t going to be Kobe, goddammit. If he’s going to be out here, he’s going to be out here on his terms.
He dribbles the ball toward the half-court line and in the breath between bounces he wipes his sweat-slick hand across the front of his jersey. His one concession to the outside world: as he’s gotten older, he’s allowed himself to look past the court. The illuminated rim of screens halfway up Staples Center tells him: Bulls took it to the Cavs. Good for Pau.
Across mid-court now and headed toward the left wing his back unlocks and cants down as he drops his dribble lower. If he doesn’t call a play — and he doesn’t — they know what to do: get out of his way.
Rockets go zone. Or at least zone-ish, leaving Harden up top to back up Garcia, but that’s like two wet paper towels defending a butterfly knife. Kobe can’t believe they put Garcia on him.
Kobe surveys his options in a flash and sees nothing. Boozer, Ronnie, Davis — nope. On the right wing is Young, mirroring his position on the court and hungry for the kickout after the drive everyone knows is coming. But not yet, thinks Kobe. Not just yet.
He waves Davis up.
The Rockets know it’s coming but damned if they can do anything to stop it. The screen Davis sets is pro forma, lip service. And Kobe’s off.
He skirts the gap between the 3-point arc and the sideline, drawing clinging defenders because they know: even at 36 he’s the biggest threat out here. Through the lattice of arms around him, Kobe sees Dwight rotate strongside. That’s what Kobe wants.
“Betrayal” is not the right word. “Betrayal” requires you to have placed any modicum of trust in a person in the first place. But Kobe saw through it right from the start, saw someone playing both sides, treating the craft like a job. Garcia recovers, Davis’ man rotates back.
He dribbles once — hard — to his left then spins back toward the middle of the floor, but Garcia got lucky and guessed right. Caught halfway through the spin, Kobe chucks his shoulder into Garcia and wedges his way a few feet closer to the hoop.
Kobe feels Dwight lumbering out of the post a few steps and shoots a glance over his shoulder to see no one diving into the space that’s opened up. Christ.
Faced with a looming double, Kobe kicks it back out to the arc where Young has opened himself up off a high screen from Davis. He knows Young is going to fire, know it in his bones because Young is all id — nothing but naked instinct.
So Kobe claps. Claps hard. The pass out loosened Garcia off him a hair and that’s all he needs to grind another few inches off, get a foot to brush the paint.
But the look is in Young’s eyes: “I got this.” But if it’s the eyes, it’s stuck in the head — no heart. It needs to live in the jaw, the throat, a searing burn down into the belly, and that might be all that Kobe has now. He claps again.
Young sees him and the resistance leaves his stance. He drops the ball down to Kobe.
He catches and faces up, Garcia now on an island and maybe he’s got an inch on Kobe and four years to boot but he knows and Kobe knows and everyone knows that doesn’t matter. At least Boozer has moved weakside, dragging Dwight along with him.
But Dwight knows too and he begins to slide back across the paint. This is where Dwight lives and breathes, even he himself doesn’t know it. He can’t, though, plant himself down there forever. So Kobe ticks it off. One.
Three and Dwight has to step back toward Boozer because if he actually steps out Kobe will hit Boozer on the dive. Better, they think — they all think — to just let Kobe do it all on his own. Let him get his, they say, and we’ll still beat the Lakers.
It’s too late to stop now, for Kobe. This is who he is and it’s what he can do. He could contort himself to fit into this new reality, sure, but then who would he be? He dribbles hard to his left and jabs like he’s going baseline.
Garcia bites — not completely but enough — and Kobe yanks it back like it’s on a chain, rising up and falling away, the ball leaving his fingers just in the nick of time and spinning through the air as the backboard fires brilliantly bright red at the edges and —