SAN ANTONIO – These are the nights that will test Kobe Bryant’s resolve. Kwame Brown hiccupping away a couple of layups. Lamar Odom slinging a careless outlet pass into the arms of an opponent. His teammates withering under the pressure then looking to him to bail them out. By the time the Los Angeles Lakers staggered off the floor late Wednesday, a 13-point lead had become a 12-point loss.
These then are the same nights that will prove whether Bryant deserves to be hailed as the league’s MVP. In such hard-luck, Andrew Bynum-less times these coming weeks, Bryant must keep the Lakers believing they truly are contenders. He must do as he did Wednesday.
Chin up, jaw squared, Bryant spoke of the team’s meltdown against the San Antonio Spurs as a “good lesson.” He didn’t fault his teammates, instead pointing out that were it not for the final five seconds of the third quarter when Brent Barry buried a pair of game-changing three-pointers, the Lakers might not have turned victory into loss.
“I’m not really disappointed,” Bryant said, and perhaps that’s the best thing the Lakers can take from the evening. They have yet to lose the confidence of their leader.
There will be a breaking point with Bryant. There always is. The Lakers can’t continue to play this skittish, they can’t continue, as Phil Jackson said afterward, to “put the ball in Kobe’s hands and make him have to do everything.” That might work against Seattle as it did last week when Bryant hoisted 44 shots and scored 48 points. But it’s not going to work against the defending champions, who, as Ime Udoka showed Wednesday, now have two skilled perimeter defenders to throw on Bryant.
For now, at least, Bryant seems more willing to embrace the challenge than he did last season. Maybe that’s because he realizes he’s stuck with these Lakers and has no choice. Or, because he’s now glad to be stuck with them, because he saw Phoenix lose in Minnesota Wednesday, because he knows the West is more wide open than it’s been in years, because he thinks the Lakers really have narrowed the gap between themselves and the Suns, Spurs and Dallas Mavericks.
“I think they’re hearing footsteps, which is good for us,” Bryant said. “It’s not to say that we’re at their level right now because we’re not. We’re trying to get there. We still have a long way to go.
“But I think they look at us now and they say, ‘You know what, they have some pieces there, they’re making some serious noise, they’re jelling pretty well. That might be a team we have to watch out for.’ ”
It should be noted that Bryant made those comments after the Lakers’ shootaround early Wednesday afternoon. As the Lakers sprayed the ball around the AT&T Center for much of the game’s second half it appeared the only footsteps the Spurs heard were the tiny pitter-patter of a No. 7 seed. Nor was Bryant blameless for the troubles. He committed nine turnovers, and though many were the result of his teammates’ indecisiveness, his quick trigger to start the second half played into the Spurs’ hands. With Manu Ginobili dribbling and passing between the Lakers’ legs, and producing eight steals, the Spurs scored the first 14 points of the third quarter.
Bryant tried to warn his teammates, telling them to brace for the run. “You think they’re just going to roll over and say ‘OK, Lakers come in here with two of your guys out and beat us by 20?’ This is what makes the game fun, these types of runs, these types of challenges.”
Bryant smiled as he said this. The Lakers figure to endure a few more tough nights over the next two months. Bynum, the promising young center who was developing into the team’s second-best player, isn’t expected back until mid March after injuring his left knee 10 days ago. On Sunday, swingman Trevor Ariza fractured his right foot in practice. Then there’s the schedule: The Lakers play in Dallas on Friday, return home for games against Cleveland and New York then begin a staggering nine-game, 14-day trip. Of the team’s 15 games in February, all but three will be played on the road.
The Lakers began last season with a promising start, too, only to watch the injuries and losses pile up. Unlike a year ago, however, Bryant’s teammates have given him reason to believe. The development of Bynum and the other younger Lakers, he says, has been a “pleasant surprise.”
“It’s exciting,” Bryant said. “You can sense that we can do something. Just watching when they first came here to seeing how they’re playing now, and the trust that I have in them because of the work that they put in, makes you proud. I didn’t know what to expect.
“That was a really big key for me. I told them in training camp, ‘Look this train has to go. So you’re either going to get on the train or get off the train.’ They’ve really stepped up and worked their tails off. That’s been really, really good for me to see.”
A trusted teammate from the Lakers’ three-peat days, Derek Fisher also has lightened Bryant’s leadership responsibilities while offering another experienced voice to the locker room. Not having that veteran companionship, Jackson said, “was the thing that bothered (Bryant) the most” in recent seasons.
“We had situations where things were close and execution fell apart, and he was concerned,” Jackson said. “With this group of guys, he sees the maturation has improved a lot.
“He’s more comfortable in finding ways to win,” Jackson said of Bryant’s evolution, “rather than feeling he has to do it all on his own.”
The rest of the league has noticed. A month ago, Suns GM Steve Kerr said the Western Conference’s elite three of Phoenix, San Antonio and Dallas had expanded to four because “you have to put the Lakers in there now.” On Wednesday, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich praised the Lakers’ “steady, significant, impressive progress.”
“I usually call Utah the best executing team in show business,” Popovich said, “but right now it just might be the Lakers.”
The Lakers obviously didn’t look like that Wednesday. And even as well as they played when Bynum was healthy, Bryant is wise enough to know the playoffs will offer the true test. Perhaps that’s why when asked if he wanted to stay with the Lakers, Bryant didn’t answer directly, saying he didn’t want his words to be misconstrued.
“Let’s just let everything play out,” he said, “and see how things answer themselves.”
Until then the Lakers will continue to plow forward. The joy, Jackson likes to say, often comes from the journey. For now, the Lakers should be heartened that Bryant appears committed to leading them on theirs.
- the Lakers