“I can’t stand it,” Bryant told Yahoo! Sports. “I really can’t stand it.”
Bryant wasn’t talking about trying to cleanly shoot a basketball with a broken finger, but the incessant questions about how he’s going to do it now. What does he do? Say it’s nothing and ignore the obvious? Or tell the truth and make it sound like an excuse? For everyone else, that taped finger would be an easy out, but Bryant is too ferociously proud to ever make excuses. Every time the questions about that finger come, you can see him stiffen.
“I never [bleeping] do it,” Bryant said inside the Lakers’ practice facility. “That’s why I don’t like talking about it.”
The hardest part for Bryant is that he’s never had to listen to questions about what’s wrong with him, with his shooting. Across the past decade, Bryant’s been basketball’s best player. Whenever issues arose within his game, the solutions were simple: Get into the gym and work them out. Beyond the gimpy knee and tender ankle, there’s just this one problem that the hours and hours of shots don’t make go away.
Bryant’s trying to make shots with a broken right index finger, and that’s the reason it’s a month running since he’s had a shooting performance to his standards. There’s a swollen knee, a sore ankle tendon, but that finger is the problem that isn’t going away until summer.
“It is what it is, but you have less margin for error with the fundamentals of the shot,” Bryant told Yahoo! “A lot of shots rim, come out and all that [bleep] now. The touch, it’s real finicky now. It’s just real finicky.”
Across Bryant’s past four games, he’s struggled to shoot over 30 percent. He missed 13 of 19 shots in Game 1. Worse, he missed five of 12 free throws. This isn’t Kobe, but this is his reality. Funny, but across these consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, it was always about the fitness of his teammates to support him. Pau Gasol(notes). Lamar Odom(notes). Andrew Bynum(notes). Now, they’re responsible for holding these Lakers together as Bryant keeps experimenting to elevate his efficiency.
Bryant’s always found ways to beat teams, and it hasn’t always been with the shot. He’ll take his turn on Kevin Durant(notes) in this series. He understands the Lakers can probably push past the Thunder with the ball pounded into Gasol and Bynum, with Odom swooping down on the wing. For now, Bryant has frantically worked to retool his game. He needs to find his shots closer to the rim than the 3-point line. He needs to get the ball in different places, find the angles that work with a shot release that is forever betraying him with that bulky wrap.
“His shot selection, he’s had to narrow that down a little bit because he can’t just elevate and get over people,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
Between Games 1 and 2, the Lakers arrived to practice in El Segundo to find Bryant in a familiar place: On the floor, shooting. His capacity to play with pain is unimpeachable, and he’ll keep going in these playoffs with the knee, the ankle and, yes, the finger.
“I don’t think he’s going to offer any excuses,” Jackson said. No, he’s going to keep searching for that touch on his finger, keep searching for a feel that once was like a second skin. There are still so many big shots waiting in these playoffs, baskets that forever belong to Bryant this time of the year. He knows everyone wonders if he can still make them with that finger and knows they’ll keep pushing him on his fitness to do it again. That’s why he can seem so grim now, so glum. Anything he says sounds like an excuse, and it’s just such a violation of his DNA to make them.
These playoffs are a cold, cutting business of makes and misses. No one cares what’s wrapped, what hurts and what finicky touch comes and goes. That’s the essence of Bryant, that’s the genius. Yes, he hates talking about that finger. Just hates it. Only one way to make the questions stop, and that comes with the ball in his hands and a game, a season, a championship on the line. That’s where Kobe Bryant has always lived, and that’s where he’s always answered those questions. However it ends this time, that’s where he goes now.