In a young season rife with rightful criticism, Kobe Bryant went completely against type on Friday night in playing the sort of team ball necessary to down the defending champs on their home court by a 112-110 overtime score.
He also acted, for long stretches, as stereotype late-career Kobe Bryant. It was fascinating.
The kicker is the fact that had Kobe Bryant played the sort of shot-happy, inefficient ball that has marked his 2014-15 season, he could have passed his model Michael Jordan and moved into third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. Instead, Bryant held back and made the correct plays that he usually anticipates before any other mere mortals, plays he often disregards prior to tossing up another jumper.
Kobe finished with 22 points on 22 shots as a heretofore terrible Lakers team knocked off a Spurs squad working with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and even Tony Parker for a spell. Kobe entered the game needing 31 points to top MJ, but he sat huge chunks of the second and fourth quarter without a complaint, and his work down the stretch helped an active Lakers squad retain their lead in the win.
His absence, for whatever reason, also saw the Lakers building that lead. This team is so strange.
Bryant made expert pocket and screen-and-roll passes, hitting the sorts of teammates he recently denigrated in full and knowledgeable view of the media on Thursday afternoon. Kobe may have missed 15 of 22 shots, but he had ample opportunity to gun for Jordan’s scoring mark several times in this contest, but instead chose to make the intelligent and proper basketball play that suits his basketball genius – obvious passes he often ignores in order to launch yet another shot.
Bryant routinely found big men Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill, and swingman Wesley Johnson for great looks with gorgeous passes on his way toward nine assists in 40 minutes of action. In the game’s deciding play, with Kobe barking at guard Jeremy Lin (who had sat about 30 minutes of real time prior to the play after being pulled to the bench) late in overtime, mercurial Lakers scorer Nick Young hit a 3-pointer with just under eight seconds to go in overtime. Young actually finished the contest with a team-high 29 points, two short of what Bryant needed to top Jordan.
Bryant didn’t always play up to the competition. His shooting percentages were obviously poor and his rookie-like turnover late in regulation helped San Antonio overcome what seemed to be an insurmountable late-game deficit, but the movements were telling. Kobe mixed in equal parts the attributes that allow NBA observers to both revere, admire and shake their damned heads at him – he forced shots, he sat willingly, he made pinpoint passes to teammates who were open and he hit a killer clutch 3-pointer late in regulation that nearly put the game away.
[ Related: Revisiting Kobe Bryant's matchups with Michael Jordan ]
Kobe Bryant finished with a -1 plus/minus in a two-point Lakers win, he took and missed more shots than any other teammate, and he turned the ball over more than any other teammate. And yet he looked like the best Laker on the court on Friday night, while declining the chance to fire away and top Jordan’s career output in front of a nationally televised stage against the defending NBA champions.
This is peak Kobe Bryant. And it’s so much fun.
Bryant is nine points away from moving past Jordan, and the Lakers play against the similarly lowly Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday night. Find somebody with NBA League Pass that evening, because you’re going to want to tune in. Even while defining his stereotypes in full view of a national audience, Kobe Bryant still finds a way to defy them.
- - - - - - -