EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP)—Although the Los Angeles Lakers still aren’t certain what ailed Kobe Bryant(notes) during two dismal games in Oklahoma City, they’re certainly hoping two days of pure rest can cure it.
Wearing street clothes and a confident smile, Bryant watched intently while the Lakers finished up practice Monday in the midst of a first-round playoff series that’s been a whole lot less relaxing than the defending champions had hoped.
It’s the rest Bryant took in Game 4 in Oklahoma City—where he didn’t take a shot until the second quarter and scored just 12 points—that has left Los Angeles worrying about an extra-long summer.
Is Kobe hurt more than he’s letting on? Was his passiveness meant to send a message to his teammates, as he’s apparently done in the past? Or was he simply not feeling it against the eighth-seeded Thunder’s aggressive defense and youthful enthusiasm?
“I feel good right now,” Bryant said Monday. “I’ve battled some injuries, but I feel good today.”
Bryant wasn’t in the mood for many complete sentences, saying he feels “100 percent” even though “some nights it’s been tough.”
When asked if he’s at the top of his game, Bryant said: “I will be.”
Nobody will know for sure until Game 5 on Tuesday night, when the Lakers will have the backing of a home crowd that has paled in comparison to the volume and intensity of Oklahoma City’s eager fans, according to both teams.
“We don’t get angry,” Bryant said. “There are certain things that we have to do to execute to win. Angry doesn’t get it done. Emotion doesn’t get it done. You’ve got to execute.”
The Lakers were thoroughly trounced 110-89 in Game 4, and their superstar’s curious performance seemed to be about more than just his injured ankle, knee, hamstring and finger. A Lakers spokesman confirmed Monday that Bryant’s broken index finger on his shooting hand has healed, but he’s now bothered by unrelated arthritis in the same digit.
Bryant didn’t take a shot until 9:06 remained in the second quarter, and he was a shadow of his usual assertive self. He finished with 12 points on 5-for-10 shooting, sitting out the fourth quarter to get a head start on the series’ first two-day break.
Bryant shot just two free throws after getting none in Game 3, clearly indicating he wasn’t driving to the basket with regularity. Bryant scored 24 points in Game 3, but also went 2 for 10 in the fourth quarter of a five-point loss.
Although ample playoff history suggests only Kobe can stop Kobe, he credited his unimpressive numbers to the Thunder’s defense and a team-wide attempt to get the ball inside.
“(Oklahoma City) is a young team that plays hard, that’s playing with house money, so they go in there and let it all hang out,” Bryant said. “It’s a series, it’s a challenge. It’s how playoff basketball should be.”
Yet Bryant was his usual take-charge self during much of the series’ first two games in Los Angeles. He scored 39 points in Game 2, earning 15 free throws and generally disrupting the Thunder’s potent transition game by taking much of the Lakers’ offensive responsibility on his shoulders, freeing up his teammates to worry about defense and rebounding.
“We put so much focus on him,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. “We’re just trying to make him make some tough shots, and he’s able to make those tough shots from time to time, but it’s hard every game, every possession if you have to make the tough shots. We’ve done a good job on him. That doesn’t mean anything in Game 5. He’s one of the best players.”
When he wants to be.
On rare occasions during his years in Los Angeles, Bryant has been done similar disappearing acts, leaving the Lakers’ offense without its central component. Bryant attributed each instance to a specific cause, whether it’s illness, injury or wanting to get his teammates more involved.
One of the most memorable no-shows occurred late in the 2004 regular season, when Bryant took just one shot in the first half of a critical game in Sacramento. He straightfacedly attributed his passivity to the stellar defense of the Kings, a decidedly average defensive club—and many interpreted his effort as a way of reasserting his dominance on that fractured team, which lost to Detroit in the NBA finals before Shaquille O’Neal’s(notes) departure for Miami.
Coach Phil Jackson accepted Bryant’s version of events in Oklahoma City, while veteran point guard Derek Fisher(notes) said he was “somewhat” certain Bryant was trying to jump-start Los Angeles’ offense by feeding 7-footers Pau Gasol(notes) and Andrew Bynum(notes).
The Lakers were much more worried about their transition game than Bryant’s offense Monday, repeatedly stating their determination to get back on defense to slow the fleet-footed Thunder’s breakout chances. Gasol and Bynum both acknowledged being worried about Oklahoma City’s growing confidence.
“We can’t afford to lose this game,” Gasol said. “We want to establish ourselves and send a message to them that they might be playing well and won two games at home, but that’s all they’re going to get. … They’re coming in with the momentum, an eighth seed with nothing to lose, but we need to make a statement in Game 5 that there’s no chance, there’s no light.”
NOTES: The Lakers are 17-0 at home in the fifth game of a playoff series tied 2-2. … Lakers F Josh Powell(notes) also didn’t practice while his wife gave birth. … G Sasha Vujacic(notes) is off crutches, but still isn’t ready to return from his ankle injury. Vujacic isn’t certain whether he could be ready by the second round. … C DJ Mbenga(notes) had a second laser surgery on his eye to repair two retinal holes. Mbenga, who won’t play in Game 5, got elbowed in the head during practice. … The Thunder practiced at home Monday before flying to California.