MIAMI – Kobe Bryant hates losing to LeBron James. He hates it. From Cleveland to Miami, the beatings have come over and over, leaving the Los Angeles Lakers star surly, seething. Ultimately, they’re made easier for Bryant because James has repeatedly failed in the playoffs. Bryant plays for championships, but these magnificent national stages do matter to him. In his mind, embarrassment isn’t so easily dismissed.
“It is hard to digest,” Bryant told Yahoo! Sports late Thursday.
When this 98-87 beating by the Heat was over on Thursday, Bryant had settled into something rarely seen in these circumstances. Something between resignation and exasperation. The offense feels like a mess because it is. These Lakers are fumbling for an identity with Mike Brown that isn’t there, waiting on their new coach to come to conclusions and push past the experimentation of too many games, too little practice time.
This is a grind of a season for everyone. The sport is suffering with disjointed, choppy games hard on the eyes and soul. Everything feels like a fire drill. Bryant didn’t go back into American Airlines Arena and take more shots like a year ago. He wrapped his right hand in that big protective mitt for his wrist, and marched out of a loss that will linger with these Lakers.
All over the floor, the Heat were faster, stronger, hungrier and far more precise. James had his way with the Lakers, controlling the game on a yo-yo with a deft, dominating 31 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, four steals and three blocks. This is James’ game – beating you everywhere on the floor in every way – and Bryant and his Lakers had no counter for it. With or without Dwyane Wade, these Heat are on a collision course with the Eastern Conference finals, and there’s no stopping them.
As for the Lakers, everything is so much more precarious. Ron Artest is on the steep decline and Derek Fisher can no longer possibly be the starting point guard for a contender. The Lakers need speed, athleticism and dependable shooting. Ownership is leery of spending money and must understand: Unless they make a deal, these Lakers are doomed.
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It didn’t matter that Wade was out because James’ talent can carry these Heat a long, long way. So far, it is still short of a championship. And that is why for all the frustration, Bryant still knows history won’t judge him as a 33-year-old losing regular-season games to LeBron. History will remember June. Somehow, someway, Brown, Bryant and these Lakers are searching for a contending formula that probably doesn’t exist with this roster.
As for the offense, Bryant insisted, “It’s under construction. We’re still working on the blueprints, actually.”
And after all these years, all the certainties of Phil Jackson’s system, how does that feel? “Strange,” Bryant said.
Bryant has an idea, tried and true: “We talked and we treated some things differently tonight,” he said. “But maybe we should go back to the things we were doing.”
He missed seven of eight shots to start the game, and wants a return to the offense that gave him the ball in different spots on the floor, deeper into the post. Brown wants the ball fed into Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, and Bryant was a significant part of that plan on Thursday. Gasol played great with 26 points, and Bynum was so-so.
Whatever the X’s and O’s, the most important element of these Lakers will be the durability of Bryant over a condensed, 66-game season and playoffs which will include back-to-backs. Brown is playing a dangerous game with Bryant, and it has nothing to do with where his shots come, with the plays called. The Lakers were down 21 points at the end of the third quarter, and here was Brown's chance to rest legs on a back-to-back with Orlando waiting Friday night.
Two of Brown’s assistants, John Kuester and Chuck Person, suggested the Lakers sit the starters for the fourth quarter. Brown let them finish the game, and the fourth quarter turned out to be something of an experimental practice session.
“I wanted to see our guys fight,” Brown said. “I didn’t care what the score was.”
He should’ve listened to his staff, because Bryant is 33 years old, and there will be a price paid for averaging nearly 38 minutes this season. With the Lakers getting blown out, with those knees needing to hold up for the playoff push, Brown made a mistake to use Bryant 41 minutes against the Heat. Perhaps it won’t show itself in Orlando, but there’s a cumulative pounding to those knees and the risk of grinding Bryant to a nub.
Across the past five games, Bryant has played more than 41 minutes a night. This has to stop, and stop soon.
“I don’t know if Kobe could handle playing 32-34 minutes a game,” Fisher said. “It’s just not in his DNA.”
Brown’s job is to protect Bryant from his own competitiveness, and make him sit when there’s nothing to be gained on the court.
On his way out of the arena, on the way to Orlando to see Dwight Howard, Bryant had to be thinking about the chances of returning to Miami in June. They can’t feel promising, and that’s why the idea of securing Howard in a blockbuster trade could be an answer for the Lakers. Before LeBron gets that first title, Kobe wants his sixth to catch Michael Jordan. It’s all he thinks about now, all he’s working with Brown to do.
This was one of those nights when James looked closer to his first, but there’s been a lot of those mirages in past Januarys and Februarys. Kobe will deal with LeBron later, but it didn’t go unnoticed this week that Jordan told author Roland Lazenby that Bryant is the closest comparison to Jordan himself.
“He knows my process,” Bryant told Yahoo! Sports. “He knows how I work. How I train. How I approach the game. It’s a great compliment.”
The greatest compliment would come in June, perhaps back on the shores of Biscayne Bay, in an NBA Finals which would probably include James and Wade. Sixteen games into the season, Bryant confessed there was no thrill in experimenting with different sets, different plays, in a nationally televised blowout. Right now, the Lakers are searching, and salvation won’t come from the coach’s playbook. Yes, the Lakers are looking for a blueprint and marching into LeBron’s gymnasium wasn’t where they would discover it.
“You have to trust the process,” Bryant said on his walk to the bus. No, he doesn’t do embarrassment well. Nor does he ever exhibit patience. He hates losing to LeBron James. Just hates it. Yet, LeBron wasn’t his biggest problem here. The Lakers look lost and downright defeated. When Kobe Bryant should’ve been sitting late, he was still running around, trying to make something on his coach’s clipboard make sense. Brutal night, brutal season.
“The process,” Bryant said again late Thursday. “You have to trust it,” and truth be told, it sounded like he was trying to convince himself as much as everyone else.
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