Not mentally, mind you, but physically. And to be clear, we're talking about relative vulnerability, for Bryant remains one of the best athletes in the league. Still, it is there. It shows with the occasional ill-fated drive to the basket, where he ends up looking to draw contact as much as finish. It shows with some of his jumpers, where he doesn't rise quite as high or extend quite as far as he once did. And most often, it shows at the basket, where he no longer finishes with the same rim-cracking authority.
All this is natural, of course. Even an athlete as finely conditioned as Bryant can't offset the cumulative effect of playing more than 37,000 NBA minutes and reaching an age when most normal men begin to peer toward the horizon, where the warm glow of over-35 leagues beckons.
The numbers tell a similar story. Perhaps not the 27.0 points per game Bryant averaged this season, but head over to Hoopdata, which compiles a treasure trove of advanced stats, and check out his peripheral indicators. This year, Bryant had a greater percentage of his shots blocked, finished fewer and-ones and, though he took just as many shots at the rim, made fewer of them (his field-goal percentage at the rim has dropped to 58.6 percent from 66 percent in 2008-09).
Sure, he's improved his post game measurably, but everywhere else -- within 10 feet, from 16-23 feet and beyond the arc -- his shooting percentage is down or static. "He's not getting to the basket the way he has in the past," said one Western Conference team executive tasked with preparing for Bryant during the season. "And he's not finishing as well, especially with the left hand."
All of which makes the Lakers' first-round matchup with the Thunder even more compelling (and it's already pretty darn compelling; if I had to allot my viewing time between the two No. 1-No. 8 matchups, it would go roughly as follows: Oklahoma City-L.A.: 100 percent, Cleveland-Chicago: 0 percent).
Not only are the Thunder the strongest eight seed in recent memory, but they're also one of the best defensive teams in the league and, in 6-foot-7 guard ThaboSefolosha, boasts one of better perimeter defenders. While there is no such thing in basketball as a "stopper," as ludicrous a sporting misnomer as you'll find, occasionally a defender can have a true shutdown game.
And the last time the Thunder played the Lakers, on March 26, Sefolosha had one. During the 22-plus minutes that Sefolosha guarded Bryant, Kobe made exactly one field goal, and that was an end-of-shot-clock special. For the game, which the Thunder won, Bryant finished with 11 points on 4 of 11 shooting and committed a career-high-tying nine turnovers. Afterward, he even admitted that Sefolosha had bothered him. Copping to weakness? Now this is not the Kobe we've come to know and (pick your choice) love/detest/grudgingly respect/name our firstborn after.
No doubt, Bryant will use that game as fuel for the playoffs. As you read this, he's probably holed up somewhere, masochistically watching film of Sefolosha while chanting whatever mantra Kobe chants when he's doing some serious self-improvement. And as a result Bryant will likely come out focused and dangerous, which in years past would have led to a ritual thrashing of his opponent.
This year, I'm not so sure. Not only is Sefolosha the rare player, long, quick, strong and relentless enough to stay with Bryant -- Portland's Nicolas Batum is another -- but Bryant's looked more human than usual lately, and the Lakers more beatable. So if you only watch one series, and one matchup, during the first round of the NBA playoffs, make it Bryant vs. Sefolosha and the Thunder. And if you do, here is what to look for, a scouting report of sorts for Slowing (if not Stopping) Kobe:
Bryant has always had a remarkably diverse offensive game, and this season is no exception. According to Synergy Sports, which tracks every play in every NBA game, 28 percent of Bryant's offense comes in isolation situations, 22 percent in post-ups, 11 percent as the pick-and-roll ball-handler and the rest in an amalgam of transition, cuts, spot-up and the like (naturally, he's above-average to excellent at nearly all aspects).
His breakdown of jump shots is even more eerily balanced: Exactly a third of his shots come from 0-17 feet, another third from 17 feet out to the there-point line and the other third from beyond the arc. When he's isolated, it's almost as equally divided between on the left side, the right and the top of the key. He shows a slight preference for driving right (57 percent of the time to 43 percent left) while regardless of direction he prefers to, in order, pull up for the jumper, get to the rim and, more rarely and less effectively, shoot a runner (understandably, as this is really a little man's shot -- think Steve Nash and Stephen Curry).
Thus, it goes without saying that there is no such thing as a "bad" shot for Bryant, and his weaknesses are relative. "He's still good enough to carry them to the Finals, and win it all," said the exec. "But I don't see the unstoppability that was there a few years ago."
As evidenced by the Hoopdata numbers, Bryant is less dangerous at the rim than he used to be. This means shot-blockers can challenge with more success, though Oklahoma City lacks the type of veteran intimidator that can take advantage of this (again, Portland and Marcus Camby would have been tough). "If the bigs are smart enough to not foul him, or not let the refs think they fouled him, they'll be OK," said the exec. "But I don't see Oklahoma City's bigs being good enough -- maybe [Serge] Ibaka, but I think Kobe will get him in foul trouble."
Still, once Kobe finishes his usual series of head fakes and commits to the air, the key is for Thunder defenders to try to jump with him, not at him, forcing him to finish.
The post-ups. This has been the biggest jump in Bryant's game, fueled in part by necessity and part by practice (most famously his sessions with HakeemOlajuwon last summer). The result: After accounting for 14 percent of his offense in 2008-09, post-ups accounted for 22 percent in this season, with impressive results.
"Early in the year with Pau [Gasol] out, he went to the post a lot more which got a lot of play from people but it was real and he was really good down there," said the exec. "Part of what makes that so dangerous is he has good spot-up shooters around him, including Ron Artest -- who can hurt the Lakers in a lot of ways but is a better spot-up shooter than people think."
This creates a problem for the Thunder: double and you leave the shooters, while single coverage often leads to highly efficient scoring from Bryant. So instead ...
In the grand scheme, probably a lot of things (like Artest creating his own offense and Bryant getting annoyed with his teammates and Sasha Vujacic doing, well, anything).
Specifically with Kobe, though, the numbers point to a few curious weaknesses. For example, when he's isolated at the top of the key, a favorite spot, a quarter of the time he shoots a jumper without dribbling. When he does, he averages only 0.65 points per shot (compared to around a point per shot in other situations), which ranks him "below average" for the league by Synergy's standards.
Think about it and it makes sense. "If you can get him to shoot a 20-footer without taking a dribble, that's the best-case scenario," said the exec. "That way he doesn't have an advantage of timing on you, so he'll draw fewer fouls. And he's dead-footing in front of you, so it's much easier to contest without fouling."
Secondly, if Bryant does get it in the post, the numbers suggest your best hope -- especially on the left block -- is to try to force him to his left shoulder. When he turns to the middle, not only does he shoot a jumper 96 percent of the time, allowing the D to sit on that move, but it's his lowest-efficiency move from that spot.
Granted, this is a bit counterintuitive. When most right-handed players get the ball in the post, they prefer to turn over their left shoulder, as this allows them to get more power under the ball on a fadeaway, hiding it back in the shooting pocket. Bryant, however, is one of the few players strong enough to turn to his right effectively, strong-arming the ball to the rim. "He's pretty darn good off the right shoulder in the paint, which most guys don't have the lift to do," said the exec. "Most want to shoot over the left shoulder, like [Michael Jordan] used to do.
"It's a testament to Kobe's skill and freakish hours of practice he puts in. "
In the end, chances are the Thunder's best strategy will be to give Bryant a number of different looks. Thunder coach Scott Brooks might try the larger JeffGreen on him at times (Sefolosha's defensive weakness is in the post, where at 215 pounds he lacks a wide base). Or Brooks might run doubles at Bryant and use his team's defensive length -- think of the windmill arms of Kevin Durant -- to try to cover the rotations on the shooters. Regardless, the more time Sefolosha can stick with Bryant one-on-one, the better for Oklahoma City.
On the other side of the ball, who knows what to expect from the Lakers. Bryant could come out gunning, or go into his selfless mode and feed Gasol and the shooters, or spend more of his time worrying about helping slow the other dominant offensive player in this series, Durant.
Regardless, you can count on two things: First, it's going to be fun to watch, especially when the series shifts to Oklahoma City for the Thunder's first-ever home playoff game (seriously, those fans might not know better and end up standing the entire game). And secondly, at the center of it all, one way or the other, will be No. 24.