SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Kobe Bryant(notes) pouted and cursed. He picked up a string of technicals, even wasting an ejection in one of these embarrassments just to make his bleeping point. He froze out reporters for a few days, then celebrated Christmas by calling out his teammates after LeBron James(notes) had run over them. These Los Angeles Lakers were too complacent, he said. They didn’t work hard enough. He vowed to kick them in practice. Toughen them until they’d awoken from their winter slumber.
After the Lakers’ malaise had stretched some 1,200 miles to the southeast and into a third game, Bryant found a new target for his ire. The San Antonio Spurs had flattened the champs, just like the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat had before them, and on this night Bryant pointed blame where blame was most deserved.
“I couldn’t put the ball in the basket and it snowballed from there,” Bryant said in front of his locker late Tuesday. “It’s my responsibility to make them.”
Some of Bryant’s teammates will laugh at that, as will more than a few of his former ones. Kobe had missed 13 consecutive shots in the Lakers’ 97-82 loss to the Spurs, misfiring on 19 of his 27 total attempts for the evening, and he was clear on this point: He wasn’t taking blame for taking too many shots. He was mad only because he missed them.
This is the tightrope the Lakers forever walk with Kobe, and the fall becomes more dangerous with each year he ages. He’d come into this game seething, determined to let his fire spread throughout the Lakers, and yet as he missed one numbing shot after another, he instead snuffed out what little life they had. In losing, Kobe had proven the one point he may never be ready to accept.
More than ever, he needs his teammates.
Bryant remains a transcendent talent, the game’s greatest competitor, and he can still carry these Lakers through games, even weeks. But he can’t lift them to a championship alone, and the most satisfying night of his career should have taught him that. In Game 7 of last season’s NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics, he nearly shot the Lakers out of a 16th title. So determined to win the game on his own, he nearly lost it. Not until Derek Fisher(notes) barked at him, did he finally take his finger off the trigger.
In the rush to push Bryant onto Michael Jordan’s pedestal, it was overlooked how close Bryant had come to staining his legacy with the selfish superstar stigma he’s worked so hard to erase. In truth, Kobe is more stubborn than selfish. It’s served him well for much of his career, but it will also work against him as he gets older, and it worked against him in the Lakers’ latest loss.
Bryant came out firing to set the tone, but even his coach and occasional enabler, Phil Jackson, admitted it eventually became “time to slow down a little bit and get everybody involved.” With Pau Gasol(notes), Andrew Bynum(notes) and Lamar Odom(notes), the Lakers owned a significant size advantage over these Spurs, only they never worked hard to establish it. Afterward, the Lakers offered their usual veiled criticism whenever Bryant goes off the deep end.
“We need to really stay inside the system, attack teams and use the mismatches to our advantage,” Bynum said.
“We didn’t play a smart game, put it that way,” Gasol said. “ …We have to recognize what’s going on and understand what our strengths are against certain opponents, and try to exploit them.”
“It can’t be an individual effort from nobody,” Gasol added. “It has to be altogether on a string, like a family.”
It doesn’t help Bryant that a few of his family members – Odom, Gasol and Bynum – can float for stretches while their crazy uncle, Ron Artest(notes), has been known to completely disappear into abyss. All of them can use a good thump upside their head from time to time. Among these Lakers, only Fisher has the combination of backbone and cache to stand up to Bryant, and yet his own struggles have hurt the team this season.
Still, in today’s NBA, the elite teams are too stacked and too strong defensively for Kobe to ignore the talent surrounding him. The Celtics are considerably deeper than a year ago and LeBron took less money to form his own super team in Miami with Dwyane Wade(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes). Out West, the Dallas Mavericks are bigger and stronger, and the Spurs have run out to the league’s best record with their deepest roster in years.
The Lakers can still beat them all, and that’s why they aren’t panicking. They played harder than in their previous two losses, but scouts will tell you they still look uninterested. That won’t last all season. Fans can light up the phone lines for L.A.’s talk shows, but deep down even they know each year in Lakerland is marked by four seasons: Kobe’s Mad at His Teammates; Kobe’s Shooting Too Much; Kobe Leads the Victory Parade; Kobe Receives His Championship Ring.
This season can still follow that form, but only if the Lakers come together as a unit. There’s strength in numbers, and all Kobe had to do to see that is look on the other side of the court. The Spurs beat him after two of their three stars holstered their own errant shots. Manu Ginobili(notes) and Tim Duncan(notes) combined for just 11 points as the Spurs were carried by Tony Parker(notes) and role players like DeJuan Blair(notes), a 6-foot-5 center no one thought could match up with the Lakers giants, and Gary Neal(notes), a rookie who found his way onto the roster only after he convinced his wife to postpone their honeymoon to allow him to play on San Antonio’s summer league team.
If anything, Duncan will have a chance to contend for his fifth title at age 35 because he learned long ago to trust the Blairs and Neals. That’s made the Spurs’ decision to transition their offense into the hands of Ginobili and Parker all the more easy.
Kobe will never share Duncan’s unselfishness, and that’s fine. It’s far easier for a big man to conform than a cold-blooded scorer. Duncan and Bryant also were raised different in the league. When Duncan arrived, the Spurs’ All-Star center, David Robinson, made room for him, showed him how to defer. Kobe and Shaq came to the Lakers at the same time, and Shaq made Kobe fight for everything he got until the Lakers finally exiled their center.
But Bryant, too, will eventually have to show more faith in Gasol and the rest of his teammates if he wants to keep winning for the duration of his contract. Not that anyone expects him to change anytime soon.
For much of the night, the Spurs had pushed Bryant where they wanted, sending him into the arms and chests of second and third defenders. Bryant wouldn’t give the Spurs’ defense credit. No, he sniffed. He had simply missed shots he usually makes.
“I just have to put the ball in the damn hole,” Bryant said. “It’s my responsibility, it’s my job.”
For better or worse, Kobe will continue to fire away. His responsibility, his job. Sooner or later, it will again become the Lakers’ problem.