What a difference a few weeks makes. When Kobe Bryant announced his forthcoming retirement in late November, he was mired in a frankly hard-to-watch season full of awful efficiency numbers and failing grades on the eye-test. The Lakers haven't exactly turned into a juggernaut since — they entered Tuesday's visit to the Denver Nuggets at 4-23 with nine losses in their last 10 games — but Bryant has looked legitimately productive and useful. After sitting out Saturday's loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder with a sore shoulder, the 37-year-old looked to extend a run of at least 22 points and 45-percent shooting from the field in four of his last six games.
Make it five of seven after Tuesday night. Kobe matched his season-high of 31 points on 10-of-22 shooting from the field (2-of-9 3FG, 9-of-11 FT) and added five assists to help the Lakers bounce back from a 13-point halftime deficit to nab a 111-107 win. He came up big when it mattered, too, scoring 11 in the final 6:13 and converting a very tough turnaround jumper to give the Lakers a seven-point lead with 32 seconds remaining in regulation.
Kobe also had his name chanted by the Pepsi Center crowd, a startling scene given that Denver fans have usually booed him since his arrest on allegations of sexual assault by the sheriff's office of Eagle, Colorado in July 2003. Charges were eventually dropped and a civil suit was settled out of court, but Nuggets fans have regularly reminded of the incident. Tuesday's crowd likely featured more of his biggest fans in the state.
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On the court, this kind of Kobe performance is becoming less of an oddity. His stats in his last seven games are good, but they look even better when limited to the last four:
Kobe Bryant’s shot chart in his last 4. 30.7 minutes per game, 62.2 TS%, 30.0 usage rate! pic.twitter.com/bHdYcxIcPZ
— Michael Gallagher (@MikeSGallagher) December 23, 2015
Apart from numbers, Bryant looks to have discovered the merits of moderation, not forcing shots to start the game and generally playing with a sense of his limitations. The ridiculous jumpers haven't left his repertoire, because Kobe could never allow such a thing, but they're rare enough to seem more fun than sad. He looks enough like his old self to retire with honor, even if this run of form does not continue much longer.
So, is the famously competitive Kobe playing well enough to postpone retirement? His answer:
With Kobe's improved play the last two weeks, does he have any thoughts about coming back next season? "Zero. Not an inkling," he says.
— Mike Bresnahan (@Mike_Bresnahan) December 23, 2015
Eh, it's still probably worth asking again if he keeps this up for a few more weeks. You never know.
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