David J. Neal: A race against time for Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant

The Young, The Middle-Aged and The Old came together Sunday by the bay. ABC cameras should have shot it in the dusty orange tones of the spaghetti westerns made in Italy, where The Old spent part of his youth.

The Old Guy continued his gallant fight to save his family’s season. He shook off The Middle-Aged Dwyane Wade for fadeaway jumpers between passing open gifts to his brothers. He didn’t slow down much with The Young LeBron James on him. But he didn’t slow James much, either. Eventually, the star power firepower dictated the day as it might again dictate the entire NBA season.

So, an hour after being outgunned and defeated, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant leaned in his locker and answered how.

“They’ve got two sensational players,” Bryant said. “D-Wade came in and started cooking. The start of the fourth quarter, he started doing what D-Wade does and made sensational play after sensational play.”

That last phrase pretty much describes the Heat’s 107-97 victory, a tight, beautifully played story starring the NBA’s current kings and the former kings, their royal purple now only fitting as the NBA’s drama kings.

Which is why Sunday’s team vs. team story line gets a yawn. NBA Finals preview? Please. The Heat fights for the No. 1 seed in the East, maybe overall. The Lakers are losing their fight for a playoff spot. Sunday’s result pushes both teams a little more in their current directions.

Ah, but, for once, the superstar showdown not only gave the game raison d’etre coming in, it played out in breathtaking displays of basketball art appreciable by even the victimized.

“He’s playing at a level rarely seen,” Lakers guard Steve Nash sighed about James.

Nash found himself unfortunate enough to be caught back alone on transition defense several times with the James bullet train roaring down the lane. The 6-3 Nash is, like Bryant, old — 39 as of Thursday. And as Richard Pryor once said, “You don’t get to be old being no fool. A lot of young wise men dead as a [sucker].”

Nash got out of the way and let LeBron create another highlight.

When James finally missed a free throw, he sulked. … Oh, wait, no, he got the rebound as it got skipped off a number of hands back out to the perimeter and instantly sank a three-pointer with 2.6 seconds left in the third. That was one of two specific plays Bryant mentioned afterwards.

The other came a few minutes earlier. Wade raced off on a one-handed dunk that he threw down after sailing past the hoop to put the Heat up 67-64 and detonated AmericanAirlines Arena. Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni was signaling for a timeout even before Wade landed keister first and skidded halfway to the Lakers bench.

“They have two very very special players,” Bryant said. “Two of the best that we’ve seen. Dwyane was obviously dealing with some injuries at the start of the year, but he seems to be rounding into form. That breakaway dunk he had, that’s the younger D-Wade.”

Bryant said that with a small smile. You do that when you get to a point of acceptance, knowing that sometimes all you can do is your best and maybe it still won’t work out.

Bryant shot 11 of 19 from the field, 57.9 percent, in dropping 28 points against a defense that knew he would try to will the Lakers past the Heat. Because that’s what he has tried to do for so many years when the Lakers have stared into the abyss of falling short of expectations.

He would have pulled it off Sunday, too. Yet Wade fired back with 30 points on sizzling 12-of-18 shooting, 66.7 percent, three steals and five assists. And, then, putting it all over the top was LeBron James with 32 points, also on 12-of-18 shooting, seven rebounds and four assists.

“He’s a fantastic passer,” Bryant said. “At his size, he can look over the defense like Magic could.”

Asked if it was unfair for one team to have two such players, Bryant chuckled that he’s probably the wrong person to ask. After all, he had a pretty dominant teammate for a while, too.

The Kobe-Shaq Lakers got broken up after Bryant’s ninth season. The Lakers had been to the Finals in four of the previous five seasons, winning three. This is James’ 10th season.

“I think he’s a little bit more focused than when he was younger,” Bryant said. “Thing is, when you’re a young player, particularly him, it seems like everything’s going to happen. You expect to be in the Finals year after year and the career seems endless. At this stage of his career, he starts to maybe value each year. Take the significance to his training, significant to focusing each game, and I think he’s taken his game to another level.”

The health of youth with the maturity of middle age … the Heat has both. In two players and in one player.

Today’s NBA’s is No Country for Old Men.

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