LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant is running out of these moments, running out of these opportunities to make history – even the ignominious kind – and running out of these days to lead and inspire players on both teams. The schedule says the Los Angeles Lakers have 18 games remaining but Bryant, and his ornery right shoulder, know that the probability of him suiting up for all of them is "wishful thinking."
Bryant finds pain in the routine these days. Last Friday, his shoulder was so unstable that turning on the radio in his car caused too much discomfort for him to even consider playing. With the farewell closing in, Bryant has no choice but to appreciate the gradual improvements of his teammates, who honored his legacy Sunday by wearing Bryant-themed socks and then defeating a seemingly unstoppable Golden State Warriors team before a delirious Staples Center crowd and a stunned national television audience.
In the final minute of the Lakers' 112-95 victory over the defending champions, Bryant stood up, towel draped on his shoulders and nodded his head with approval. Fans were busy chanting his name to show their appreciation for Bryant toughing out another game when he still didn't feel quite right, but Bryant was too focused on calling over teammate Jordan Clarkson and bringing him in for a hug. He was still shouting instructions for them not to let up.
"Kobe kept us on our toes," rookie point guard D'Angelo Russell said after he and Clarkson combined to somehow outplay and outshoot the league's best backcourt in All-Stars Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
Pulling off the greatest regular-season upset in NBA history – a 51-loss team defeating a 55-win team in early March – won't make the list of Bryant's career accomplishments but he will find pleasure in knowing that this farewell tour is becoming more than some 82-game ego stroke; that youngsters like Clarkson and Russell are taking note of the importance of tending to details, to "basketball, nerdy things." His influence might not be fully felt through the slog of another lousy season in Los Angeles but Bryant is hoping for something more lasting.
"My job here is to help mentor these young guys, teach them as much as I possibly can and move this organization into a bright, bright future," Bryant said.
Bryant has no more rings to win, no more championships to chase. But he still has six more weeks to exhaust whatever competitive juices remain and to share what he's learned over a 20-year career. The Lakers may have done Bryant's old coach, Phil Jackson, a favor by making Golden State's quest of catching or surpassing the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' record of 72 wins a little more difficult but Bryant still lent a helping hand in the Warriors' pursuit.
After the game, Bryant sought out reigning Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry, encouraged him to "keep pushing" and heard some thoughtful words from Curry about the influence Bryant has had on his career. "I told him to enjoy this last month and a half of his farewell. I'm very appreciative of what he did for the game of basketball. And we'll benefit from that," Curry said.
Then, Bryant summoned Draymond Green to pass along a much more pointed message. "He's the one that has to keep his finger on the nerve with this team, because it can get lax, it can get comfortable, and I think he's the one that's going to have to create that conflict, that tension in the locker room, because if they don't have that, then in the playoffs, then they are going to be in trouble," Bryant said of Green. "He's got to give them that conflict."
Green has been the emotional leader for the Warriors from the moment he was given a prominent role on the team. That fiery personality came out during a testy, profanity-laced display at halftime of a comeback win at Oklahoma City two weeks ago, one that later prompted Green to apologize to his teammates for being a distraction. Not that he necessarily needed any prodding but Green felt more emboldened not to let his teammates allow history to slip from them after speaking with Bryant.
"He's that guy and probably one of the best to ever do that. For what he's done for the game, being a fan of him, to hear that from him, means a lot, and it's one of those things it makes you want to do it even more," Green told The Vertical. "That's a guy who's been there, done that, he's won back-to-back championships, like we're trying to do, so he knows what it takes, he knows what you have to do. You just take the advice. You know you have to bring some leadership to the table and you just remember what he told you. I'm not sure how you do it, but try to find a way."
The Warriors (55-6) got a rare reminder of the difficulty of maintaining laser focus for a full season, of why only three teams in NBA history have even won 69 games. Steve Kerr couldn't get his players going with a halftime speech in which he told them "the other guys make millions of dollars to play basketball, too." Curry couldn't find that magical stroke from beyond the 3-point line and even point-blank layups missed the target. "That's why nobody's been close to the Bulls' record and all that stuff. It's not a usual thing," Curry said afterward.
Golden State is only 2½ games better than San Antonio after the loss, despite its incredible start. Becoming the second team in NBA history to win at least 70 games might actually become a requirement simply to win the Western Conference, but Curry said the Warriors can't get lost concerning themselves with the Spurs, whom they face three more times – including twice in San Antonio (where they haven't won in the regular season during the Tim Duncan era) – the rest of this season. "We're still in control of that conversation, but we want to keep looking ahead, not looking behind us," Curry said. "They are playing well. We don't need any help down the stretch. We're in control of our own pace. We've allowed ourselves the room to drop one here or there, but we've got to turn it back on."
Despite the setback, the Warriors could still end up with more wins over their final 21 games than the Lakers' win total for the whole season. That's the gruesome reality for the Lakers (13-51) and Bryant, who had his last chance to play a significant, competitive game interrupted against this very team three years when he ruptured his left Achilles' tendon in a win over Golden State and defiantly made two free throws before limping off the floor. Bryant never got to participate in the postseason he willed the Lakers to reach – "I killed myself to try to get us in," Bryant said – and hasn't come close since. All that Bryant has left are the chance to appreciate what remains and the opportunity to understand how much he's appreciated in the end.
"I played my entire career with blinders on, just focused on running the race," Bryant said. "I didn't have time to focus on the sides. Now I've had an opportunity to come up for air and soak it all in, it's been great."
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