LOS ANGELES – No matter what Kobe Bryant(notes) does, he can’t seem to win even when he does win. If he produces a high-scoring game, then he’s shooting too much. If he scores modestly, then it’s evidence his body is failing him and he’s past his prime.
Bryant fell into the latter category on Tuesday, which has been a constant theme of late. He scored just 13 points and had four turnovers. More evidence he’s too old?
How about evidence that he’s finding other ways to help his Los Angeles Lakers win? The Lakers routed the Oklahoma City Thunder 111-87 to move within a victory of the second round, and Bryant’s contributions were a big reason why. In addition to handing out seven assists, he helped slow Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook(notes).
“Kobe had a great impact on the game,” Oklahoma City coach Scottie Brooks said. “The stat sheet doesn’t show that.”
Even still, Bryant was bracing for more criticism.
“If I didn’t have Pau [Gasol], Andrew [Bynum], the crew that I have, I would score 45-50 points and everybody would say he shoots too much,” Bryant said. “I have a great crew. I don’t need to do that. I can pick my poison so when I get in the paint I can have so many choices. If they play me, I’ll give it to my guys and they’ll score and have big nights. If they don’t, I’ll have a big night. Simple as that.”
Bryant scored 39 points in the Lakers’ Game 2 victory, but has averaged just 16.3 in the three games since. Bryant’s swollen knee, sore ankle and broken finger – which prompted him to sit out four of the final five regular-season games – have slowed him. He’s driving to the rim less, shooting fewer free throws and his jump shot comes and goes depending on how his finger feels. Have all those playoff runs, all that work with the U.S. national team, finally caught up to him?
“You kill me, man,” Durant said. “Y'all coming to me with this? Kobe Bryant is the best player in the league, one of the best players in the world. You’re talking to me like playing a phenomenal game is something he doesn’t do. He’s Kobe Bryant. He’s going to come out and lead his team. He’s been doing this for 12, 13 years.
“He’s a guy who really doesn’t have to score against teams to win games now. A couple years ago he had to.”
During the Lakers’ 24-point blowout win in Game 5, Bryant opted to trust his teammates instead of trying to carry the team like he has done so often in the past.
The Lakers jumped to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter before finishing it ahead comfortably 31-16. Gasol and Bynum combined for 16 of those points on 7-of-11 shooting. The Thunder never challenged the rest of the way and trailed by as many as 32.
“What I think we wanted to do is be aggressive right from the start,” Bryant said. “We tried not to let them get going or get confidence the rest of the way.”
Bryant has weathered criticism about his shooting tendencies throughout his career. Earlier this season, Gasol complained the Lakers weren’t playing off their big men enough. On this night, Gasol (25 points) and Bynum (21 points) starred. Bryant’s reward was being able to sit out the fourth quarter.
“I got guys I can manage,” Bryant said. “You got to pick your poison. It’s like conducting an orchestra or a symphony.”
When asked if he would have trusted his teammates a few years ago, Bryant responded: “And pass it to whom? I would’ve had 55-60 points.”
Bryant’s defense on Westbrook played one of the biggest roles in the Lakers’ triumph. Westbrook entered Game 5 averaging 21.8 points, 5.3 assists and 6.5 rebounds while often blazing past Lakers veteran guard Derek Fisher(notes). Bryant told coach Phil Jackson that he wanted the challenge of guarding Westbrook, regardless of his own injuries. Bryant held Westbrook to 15 points on 4-of-13 shooting and helped force him into eight turnovers by being, in his words, a “savvy old dog.”
Brooks admitted that Bryant’s defense on Westbrook to open the game “kind of threw us off a little bit.”
“I enjoy the challenge,” Bryant said. “I think [Westbrook] has been playing sensational. If we are going to be eliminated, I don’t want to go into something knowing I could have done something about it.”
The Lakers can close out the series on Friday in Oklahoma City, but it won’t be easy. They just lost two games in the raucous Ford Center. Bryant will likely arrive smelling blood. Does that mean he’ll take on more of the scoring responsibility in Game 6?
“He had a number of moments tonight where he could have taken shots and he chose to penetrate and pass to his teammates,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “I’m going to encourage him to shoot those shots next game.”