Kobe Bryant, finally with something to smile about (Getty Images)
Golden State couldn't hit a shot, despite the Los Angeles Lakers attempting to do all they could to clear space and let the Warrior shooters line up for open looks from long range. Andrew Bogut was out, Stephen Curry still looks wobbly, and Andris Biedrins was missing free throws by a full foot. And yet, somehow, the Warriors were in the contest during the first 14 minutes of action. Not too far away from a sullen Lakers team in a quiet Staples Center, a Lakers squad that was hoped to be re-energized by the dismissal of beleaguered coach Mike Brown was once again going through the motions.
And, because he's great at writing these columns for us, Kobe Bryant went to work.
Early attempts to establish Bryant in the post as a passer only resulted in awful spacing as clueless teammates stood around, unsure if they were back to the Triangle or still running Princeton sets or about to watch Kobe go off for 81 points by himself again. With the confusion and lack of communication obvious, Bryant started looking for his own shot. There were a few long twos, some forced shots, some calls he didn't deserve and some glares after non-calls that, yeah, he still probably didn't deserve.
He also carried the Lakers to a blowout win. One that allowed for them to rest the fourth quarter, to ponder the future, to get used to a bench full of ears that for once weren't ringing with Brown's endless, endless, endless talking and instruction and assistant coach-styled adjusting.
On a night where Pau Gasol could not seem to follow through on a jumper or hook if his life depended on it, and another contest that saw Dwight Howard look nothing like the Dwight Howard we've seen for years, Bryant had to take over offensively just to keep his Lakers' chances afloat against a Warriors team that managed just one field goal during the second half of the second quarter, and one field goal spread out over the final six minutes of the third quarter. The Warriors were awful, but the Lakers sans Kobe weren't much better.
Luckily, they weren't sans Kobe on Friday. He scored 27 points on just 18 shots in only 32 minutes of play, doing effective damage with a series of drives, post-ups, and up and under moves designed to draw fouls on youngsters like Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson. Relatively healthy, Bryant enjoyed a scoring return to glory last season under Brown — but the way he piled up those points often took his team out of games, or made wins harder than they should have been.
There was none of that on Friday, as Bryant went aggressive in all the right ways. No endless up-fakes for long jumpers, or pull-up shots in transition. No, this was Bryant mixing it up, and leading by example. The scoring won it, but the nine rebounds and seven assists (a staggering number, considering how awful the Laker offense looked overall) also helped. And, most warming for Laker fans and impartial observers alike was the efficiency and thought that went into creating those scores, and all those points close to the rim.
Of course, this has to be the last we see of this.
There were no Princeton sets from the Lakers tonight. Just endless pick and rolls and post-ups. The game plan wasn't a total loss — interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff ran some nice sets for Howard and Gasol out of dead ball situations — but the Lakers are going to worm their way into a .500 record if they depend on 34-year old Kobe Bryant to slash and post-up routinely as he did. Kobe can't go back to shooting jumpers, we're not demanding that, but he has to be able to play this style of game for, say, half as many possessions. Gasol has to concentrate and (as he did tonight, though the results weren't great) make quick decisions. Howard has to return to prominence on both ends. Steve Nash needs to mend.
For now, though, this is exactly what the Lakers needed. A series of late-game, fourth quarter clear-outs spread out over nearly 33 minutes of play. And, unlike Kobe's typical late game heroics — heroics that often see him miss endless amounts of long jumpers — this was done right. This was done with poise, and efficiency. He was fantastic.
It's been a remarkable start to the season for Kobe Bean — 27.2 points on a superb 56 percent shooting mark through six contests, with a combined 9.5 rebounds/assists helping to offset those unfortunate 4.3 turnovers a game as Los Angeles finds its way. He long ago proved he could adapt his game to any offensive style; the question was just whether or not Bryant wanted to subjugate his ego and attempt to think team-first instead of "I got this, team."
On Friday, it didn't matter. The MVP-level play was absolutely necessary.
From here on out, with 76 games and a new head coach yet to come? Bryant, and the Lakers, have so much more to figure out.
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