Game Seven Is Gut Check Time For Kobe Bryant

For a future first-ballot Hall of Famer who has proven so much in his career and, arguably, the most accomplished player this side of Jordan, Saturday's Game Seven marks one of the most pivotal moments for Kobe Bean Bryant. 

Following Tuesday's Game Five between the Nuggets and Lakers which saw Andre Miller look more like Magic Johnson and JaVale McGee resemble a NBA Jam character, my best friend Brad (diehard Lakers fan) and I had this text conversation.

Brad: Bynum was in "I don't give a f*ck" mode tonight.

Me: I ain't gonna lie, though. When Kobe got in that zone, that sh*t was fun as hell to watch.

Brad: Oh yeah, man.

Me: I just knew the game-winner was going in.

Brad: Fisher makes that three. I predicted Bean would go 14-35. 14-32 tonight!

Me: Those are Iverson numbers.


Me: That's Kobe, dog. Like you said, a gift and a curse.

Brad: SMH. I can easily see a 15+ point loss on Thursday.

Brad obviously knows his team better than I do, because the Lakers marched into Denver looking to close the series out and head to Oklahoma City, but ended up getting housed by a Nuggets team who have the chance to do the impossible come Saturday night. Kobe came down with a mean case of the "bubble guts," but to his credit, appeared to be the only Laker who gave a damn at times. Then there was the battle cry Bean once again was attempting to create parallels between this game and Michael Jordan's now iconic "flu/hangover game" in the 1997 Finals.

Whether he was as sick as advertised, I could really give a damn, and I was actually more upset that the crazy lady didn't run on the court again looking for Alex English since she obviously has a "Nuggets of yesteryear" fetish. Now look what we've gotten ourselves into. The most provocative set up in basketball - a Game Seven.

Saturday night's game is big on many fronts. The Nuggets look to come back from a 3-1 series deficit. Metta World Peace and The People's Elbow make their first appearance on a basketball court since nearly decapitating James Harden. Mike Brown is not about that "hot seat" life if the Lakers lose. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum - possibly through lack of involvement in the offense (or "softness" or immaturity), you know - appear to have mentally checked out of the series for the second year running. And we're thissssss close from seeing Magic Johnson meltdown on Twitter and TV.

All that pales in comparison to one storyline. This game falls squarely on the shoulders of Kobe Bryant. Let's get one thing clear. One thing painfully clear. There isn't a basketball player currently collecting paychecks with more self-confidence than Kobe. There just isn't, which is exactly why putting him in a "do-or-die" type game is so appealing. He embraces it. His legions of fans embrace it and so do his empire of haters. It's how he has built his legacy by showing up on the game's brightest stages and owner of the title "best clutch player since MJ." He's a fourth quarter assassin, living up to his own self-coined nickname, "The Black Mamba."

But, and I pose this question with no malice in my heart, can he finally shake his Game Seven past? We all remember Game 7 vs. Portland in 2000 where he basically willed L.A. to the victory which ultimately kickstarted a dynasty. Plus, that alley to Shaq is one of the definitive plays since the turn of the century. Two years later in that same Western Conference Finals against the Kings, he turned in a magnificent 30-10-7 game. Not to be forgotten, however, the Kings went 16-30 from the free throw line and lost by six. From there though, the course gets shaky.

Presently, Kobe and his Lakers find themselves tied 3-3 in a series they were once up 3-1. Complaints of Kobe not getting his teammates involved enough are surfacing again (although he did trust Steve Blake in Game Three) and the shot sheet proves such. Thus far, The Mamba has taken 156 shots in comparison to 139 for Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol...combined. Remember the last time the planets aligned like this? Yep, the 2006 playoffs where a drastically less talented Lakers squad blew a 3-1 advantage to Steve Nash's Suns to ultimately lose the series by 31 points in the final game.

Highlighted more than the loss was the fact Kobe refused to shoot in the second half of Game Seven leading many people to believe he either a) quit b) did so to prove a point or c) all the above. I highly doubt this happens again Saturday, but imagine the fallout if the game's most vindictive player picked then to prove his "you need me chucking the rock" point again. It may be hard to remember now that he has two more rings under his belt, but that one game tarnished Kobe's image for a long while leading some to label it "the most selfish act in sports."

Three years later, in what would become known as the "Ron Artest Acquisition Game," Kobe's Lakers stood in a Game Seven against the Houston Rockets. This is one of the more appealing "what if" series in recent memory mainly because the question of "what if Yao Ming was healthy for the entire series" will always linger. After dropping 28-10 in an effortless performance in Game 1, Ming never saw the court again after injuring his foot. Regardless, the series still went the distance and L.A. dismantled Houston by 19 in the deciding game led by Pau Gasol's 21 points and 18 rebounds. Because of the win, Kobe's 14 point performance on 4-12 shooting is nothing more than a mere footnote.

Then there's Game Seven versus Boston in the 2010 Finals which is so much of a can of worms that I won't even bother opening. We saw what happened.

So here we are again in the present day. Twenty-four hours before Kobe Bryant's next Game Seven. The last three are what they are. Kobe loyalists will defend the fact he's 4-1 in those five games mentioned. Kobe detractors will argue he's been a non-factor in the last three and that his teammates - surprise, surprise - were the ones who carried him. And, like Eddie Maisonet said, "He had Godzilla in the post for the first two." The truth lies somewhere in the middle, I suppose. One thing which has always been more than apparent about Bryant is the uncanny perception he has about himself and the moment.

This isn't the Finals, but then again, that won't even present itself as a possibility if L.A. falls flat on their face come Saturday night. A 3-1 series collapse for the second time in his career coming off the heels of an embarrassing 4-0 sweep at the hands of Dallas in 2011 that killed the career of Phil Jackson is not something you want attached to your resume, even if there are five rings to wash away the tears. For a man who has never once shied away from the moment, Kobe Bryant's name is the only one in the spotlight. Kevin McCallister said it best in the first Home Alone. "This is it. Don't get scared now."

It's gut check time for Kobe Bean Bryant. And pending he passes this test, his consolation prize is a well rested, hungry and young, but battled tested squad in Oklahoma City. God bless the playoffs.

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