March 07, 2007
Once more, Kobe Bryant has cost himself the leverage to wag his finger and bemoan the tactics of the Raja Bells and Bruce Bowens in the Western Conference playoffs. No one confuses Bryant's intentions now. He keeps swinging for faces and keeps connecting.
First, it was San Antonio's Manu Ginobili. This time, it was Minnesota's Marko Jaric. For every aspect of basketball that Bryant has perfected, he's failing at the art of concealing the cheap shot. Stu Jackson's office let Kobe off easy with a one-game suspension for popping Jaric on Tuesday night, especially with the memory still so fresh of Bryant's shot upside Ginobili's head in late January. This latest transgression was worth two games, easy. Maybe three.
Somehow, this has become a part of Bryant's arsenal. Another missed jump shot, and another wild, flail on his follow-through at a defender's face. Whatever the story he's spinning this season, there remains a lot of anger, a lot of unrest within the Los Angeles Lakers star, and these are the moments when it manifests. And isn't it curious how he keeps picking victims whom he doesn't fear will fight back?
"I don't think he would've done that to (Minnesota's) Ricky Davis," one Eastern Conference scout said Wednesday. "In part, Kobe probably thought that if anything went down, he'd beat Marko's ass. No question in his mind. With Ricky, he's probably got a little more respect for him as a player, and probably a little more concern. 'I might be able to beat his ass, too, but I'm not necessarily sure it's worth the trouble.'
"The respect factor, of who it is, plays a big role in it."
This scout happens to believe that Kobe learned this trick from his old teammate and nemesis, Shaquille O'Neal. No one in the sport finds more creative ways to get in his digs than Shaq, especially when it appears he's accidentally gotten tangled on his way to the ground.
"When he's getting fouled, Shaq is notorious for flailing and trying to inflict damage on the culprits involved," the scout said. "He's looking for a little payback. I can sympathize with him. Shaq's always got guys draped on him, beating on him, and they know they've got to hit him hard or there's going to be a three-point play.
"But whichever big stiff who Shaq didn't have respect for -- whose job it was to beat on him -- he loved to punish them. He would hit them in the mouth, jaw -- always do it on the offense end, not on defense. That way, he was able to conceal it a bit with his move."
As it's gone lately, Bryant hasn't had the ability to conceal those agitated swings and swipes. And when the playoffs arrive, when the West's real tough guys come calling, Lakers coach Phil Jackson and he will have a tougher time selling the sport's best player as a victim. The league suspended him for Wednesday night's game with the Bucks, but Kobe Bryant starts paying the price now.