Kobe Bryant is quite the pensive one these days.
Boston and Los Angeles are two of the most storied foes in NBA history. Regardless of whether the games truly matter or not, the mutual hatred for the other's colors spurs a battle of diligent wills.
But it's not all acrimony between the two. There is also a mutual respect that exists, especially now that both teams are clinging to playoff hopes as a litany of injuries derail their championship aspirations. They can relate to one another.
And Bryant is as crestfallen about the Celtics' arduous journey as he is about the Lakers' (via Jackie MacMullan of ESPNBoston.com):
"I'm not happy about what's happening to them," Bryant said. "We're all running out of time. So I understand."
Time has become a common topic for the Mamba. At 34 and nearly two decades deep into his professional career, Bryant has danced around the imminence of his retirement on a number of occasions. And it has left us with a more reflective Kobe, a more appreciative Mamba.
One who has taken exception to the supposedly unjust criticism of fellow superstars.
Prior to Los Angeles' games against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Bryant took a stand against critics who believed that Kevin Love was a part of the problem. He scoffed at the notion that the Timberwolves are better off without him.
Just like he derided the notion of the Celtics being better without Rondo:
"You don't want Rondo? Send him my way," Kobe declared. "I love everything about him. Everything. I love his attitude, I love his chippiness, his edge, his intellect, his know-it-allness. All of it. That's what makes championship players.
"What guard have you seen at his size that will get you 18 assists, 17 boards and 20 points all in one game? That's unheard of. I love that kid. I always make a point of talking to him during All-Star [Weekend]. He's one of my favorites."
"Favorite" isn't a term Bryant tosses around a lot. As someone who has questioned Pau Gasol's work ethic and Dwight Howard's toughness already this season, it's clear his unconditional respect isn't easily earned. But Rondo has it.
Because in many ways, he's just like Rondo.
Lost in Kobe's defense of Love and Rondo is the parallel that can between drawn between what they're going through (especially Rondo) and what he went through, what he continues to go through.
Countless All-Star selections (15) and five championships later, the Lakers aren't always perceived to be better because of Kobe.
He shoots too much. He doesn't pass enough. He needs to work harder on defense. He's still shooting too much. He's working too hard on defense. He shoots too much still.
Those are genres of criticism Bryant is subject to in every game of every season. Almost 20 years into his NBA tenure, they haven't gone anywhere.
Still, despite the continuous turmoil and what has, at times, bordered on implosion, Kobe maintains his devotion to the Lakers, his faith in these Lakers, above all else:
I'd take the Lakers, for sure. Honestly, I like where we are. I like the pieces we have. We're still a pretty big team. If we get our guys healthy, I think we can make a significant run at it.
So I'll take my guys.
Coming from Bryant, those sentiments mean everything. Not because he's obligated to display his allegiances and not because he'd be crucified for saying anything else, but because he means it.
Save for toiling with the psyche of the opposition, everything Kobe does, everything he says is calculated. His spoken belief is not artificial, but genuine. Again, he remains committed to Los Angeles in every possible capacity.
And on some level, it's been that way since before he was even a Laker:
Kobe actually had some brief exposure to the "Celtics way" in 1996 when he worked out for Boston prior to the NBA draft. When Bryant's handlers told him the Celtics, who held the sixth pick, wanted him to come in, the 17-year-old high school kid flatly refused.
"They said, 'What do you mean no?"' Kobe said. "I was such a Lakers fan and I just hated the Celtics. They said, 'C'mon now, you have to do this.' So I asked them, 'But do I have to wear all that green stuff?"'
Kobe did have to wear "all that green stuff," during his pre-draft workout in Boston and even now, almost 20 years later, it's almost unsettling to acknowledge he could have became a Celtic.
But he didn't. Boston took Antoine Walker, and Bryant was then drafted by the then Charlotte Hornets and traded to the Lakers.
Five championship rings later, he hasn't looked back. His pundits have. They've questioned his dedication to winning, to his team and his fidelity to anyone but himself. They've tried to portray him as a miscreant, a tactical impostor who is only out to get his.
They've second-guessed the ceiling of Kobe and his team, this team. The Mamba hasn't.
And he has no plans to second-guess the potential of his team now, even as their title hopes continue to dwindle.
He remains adamant about who they truly are and where there headed, not where they currently reside.
And his resilience at this stage is both admirable and unprecedented. Though it has become more arduous a task to "impose his will on the game," Kobe continues to do so. Should he be able to carry, push or "drag" the Lakers to another postseason berth, it would be yet another notch of greatness under the illustrious belt that is his career.
A career that Bryant readily admits (again) is drawing to a close:
"I think about it often," he admitted. "Quite often. I've tried to scrape the plate every year that I've played. I've been going after it every year. So I've got two years left, and I want two more rings."
His contract is up two seasons from now. He will be 35, and Bryant said he's seriously contemplating retirement.
"It could be it," he said. "There's a very high probability. It's been 18 years, man. That's a long, long time."
There's that concept of "time" again. More than 17 years in, "time" has changed Kobe. We've watched him grow from an exuberant teenager to a brash adult to what is now a humble Mamba.
While Bryant's persona has changed and though his tactical transformation is an ongoing one, how he approaches the game remains the same.
He embraces the concept of adversity, of every team for themselves on the court. He publicly concedes an affinity for Rondo and all that he does, but he would never shy away from putting him to the floor.
Call him the antithesis of new-school, an advocate of old-school or whatever you like—it's probably wrong. Bryant is a member of his own school, one that continues to evolve but misses how the game once was.
Like Kobe, the game is different, and while he remains hardened to the nuances of its evolution, he can't help but reminisce about how it used to be:
They don't seem to want to talk any trash. I say everything to LeBron. He says nothing back. He just laughs. There's no banter back and forth. I guess it's a generational thing. When I first came into the league, the trash talk was downright cutthroat.
Bryant is seemingly embracing his own alteration while rejecting much of league's. Six-ish months away from turning 35, we don't often perceive Bryant to be old. He's often considered that exuberant youth to brash adult we previously discussed.
This talk of "generational" differences is an eye-opener. His ability to re--structure, transform and change his game to fit his team's mold suggests he embraces the game how it is now.
Bryant will only shrug off this change so much, though. He will be whatever his team's and he'll do so with a smile on his face. But he won't lose that competitive edge, the one that will turn that smile into his now patented death stare.
He won't allow his teammates to become complicit with opposing camaraderie; he won't let them forget that only one team can hoist up the Larry O'Brien Trophy every year.
To that end, although much about Bryant—like the league—has changed, he will never stop pushing himself or those around him:
We need some urgency. he explained. Dwight has never been in a position where someone has driven him as hard as I have, as hard as this organization has.
It's win a championship or everything is a complete failure. That's just how we do it. And that's foreign to him.
It's "foreign" to a lot of people, a lot of teams. Plenty of organizations are content with just deep playoff runs or even a postseason berth.
Just not the Lakers or the Celtics, familiarity he takes solace in.
"When you think about it, there aren't many organizations that look at it that way," Bryant said. "There are only two that can really honestly say that's what they live by: Los Angeles and Boston."
And it's been that way since before Kobe's demonstrative career even began.
Maybe not as much about this game has changed, after all.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.