Kobe Bryant can still play defense. Like NBA All-Defensive Team defense. Just ask Kyrie Irving. Or Brandon Jennings.
On the heels of a six-game losing streak, everything about the Los Angeles Lakers was being questioned. From Dwight Howard's health to Kobe's defense to Mike D'Antoni's mustache, everything about Hollywood's finest was wrong.
But while Howard is undoubtedly still in some pain—though the Milwaukee Bucks and Cleveland Cavaliers wouldn't know it—and D'Antoni is still sporting the same ole' whiskers, Bryant's defense has changed.
Not changed in the sense that the Black Mamba is playing over his head or past his potential, but in the sense that he's more engaged, that he's playing the defense we all knew he could.
Or rather, most of us knew he could.
After being left off the NBA's All-Defensive Team for the first time since 2005 last season, the 34-year-old Bryant's defense began to be questioned. Was he healthy enough to help lock down the perimeter? Spry enough to keep up with opposing guards? Focused enough to even care about defense at all?
Kobe perpetuated such inquiries with a poor defensive showing to start the season. The Lakers are not only allowing opponents to score more points with him on the court, but (per 82games.com) Bryant himself was allowing opposing guards to post an average PER of 20.9 per 48 minutes while he was on the floor as well.
More troubling than that was Coach D'Antoni's assessment (via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngles.com) of Bryant's defense:
Mike D'Antoni on Kobe's off-ball defense: "Umm, it’s good … You know. I think sometimes he just … You know … Umm … Yeah, it’s good."— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) January 14, 2013
Though Magic Mike isn't known for his defensive analysis, his inability to utter any convincing words of encouragement for Kobe's defense was telling. It was also a wake-up call.
Enter Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Bryant was tasked with guarding Irving. The same Irving who leads all point guards in scoring per game, notching 23.6 points per contest on 45.9 percent shooting. The same Irving who has proven all but unstoppable and more than All-Star worthy.
And the same Irving whom Bryant held to just 15 points on 7-of-15 shooting from the field.
So was Steve Nash (via Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times):
Irving scored only 15 points in the Lakers' 113-93 victory, with Bryant often keeping the Cavaliers point guard from receiving the ball in his preferred spots. Irving made only seven of 15 shots and finished well short of his average of 23 points per game.
Not coincidentally, it was the first time the Lakers held an opponent under 100 points since last year. Portland had been the last team the Lakers had kept to double digits, on Dec. 28, seven games earlier.
"Sometimes when maybe he's guarding someone that isn't going to demand his interest, he can wane a little bit," Nash said. "But when we put him in a position where he's challenged, he can be phenomenal."
Bryant hounded Irving all night, pushing him to his left, where he is less accustomed to attacking. We're talking about a point guard who is 14 years younger than Kobe and averages more than 18 shots a night. Bryant held him to just 15. That cannot be lost on us.
And it wasn't. Even the previously speechless D'Antoni (via McMenamin) was able to piece together some coherent observations:
"He disrupts the whole offense on the ball," said D'Antoni, who added that Bryant will draw either Brandon Jennings or Monta Ellis when the Lakers host the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday. "He's done that a couple games, so we'll continue to milk that one."
Not-so-subtly hidden within D'Antoni's praise was a potentially detrimental dose of reality. The Milwaukee Bucks were on tab next, and with them came Brandon Jennings, a point-totaling machine in his own right. Could Bryant really lead the Lakers' defensive charge once again?
Almost needless to say, that proved to be an inane query.
The league's leading scorer came out on a mission. Not to score (he does that in his sleep) but to render Jennings a nonfactor—which is exactly what he did.
Kobe is huffing and puffing here during every stoppage, sweat pouring off him as if he were Shaq. Hard work to guard the ball.— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) January 16, 2013
That's just the cost of doing business, though, when you're diving on the floor after balls that you poked loose.
Kobe just got an audible floor burn diving for a ball he dislodged from Beno Udrih. He's locked in on this challenge. ... LAL 74, MIL 71.— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) January 16, 2013
Bryant's sweat and floor burn were not in vain, either. He held Jennings to just 12 points and one assist on 28.6 percent shooting.
Kobe guarded Brandon Jennings most of the night. Jennings: 12 points on 4-of-14 shooting, one assist.— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) January 16, 2013
This is Jennings, who averages 18.3 points and 5.8 assists per game, mind you. He's no stranger to poor performances, but this one was simply atrocious.
Absolutely not. Even Jennings himself credited Bryant with playing him tougher than anyone has ever played against him:
More Jennings on @kobebryant: "For the whole game, I don't think I've ever seen a guard put that much pressure on a point guard full-court."— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) January 16, 2013
Jennings offered even more (via David Leon Moore of USA Today) proverbial applause as well:
Bryant's assignment was Milwaukee fourth-year point guard Brandon Jennings, and it worked again, as Bryant hounded Jennings, averaging 18.5 points a game, into irrelevancy for much of the game.
"It was probably the best defense somebody's ever played on me since I've been in the league - just constantly putting pressure on me, touching me, hitting me at all times in the game. He wouldn't let me just catch the ball easy, and I wasn't able to get the ball a lot, so it was pretty difficult."
And the praise didn't stop there.
Bucks coach Jim Boylan didn't hesitate to admit his team was thwarted by one man (Kobe) more than anyone else:
Bucks coach Jim Boylan: "Our rhythm was taken away from us -- and mainly by the defense Kobe played."— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) January 16, 2013
Are you convinced yet?
Because you should be.
This isn't a two-hit wonder display of defense. Rather, this is the type of defender, the type of athlete Bryant is. When he's asked to do more, he'll do more. That much was clear against the Cavaliers and the Bucks.
All but two games ago, Los Angeles was on life support. There was no hope for its defense—no hope for the team in general. Then, in comes Bryant to the rescue.
Most won't shy away from chastising his alleged refusal to pass, and even more have ridiculed his defensive sets to the core only this season. Lost in all that criticism, though, are the genuine abilities of a fantastic two-way player.
He didn't just carry the Lakers defensively against Irving and Jennings, but offensively as well. He dropped 23 and 31 points respectively in those contests, all the while defending two of the most elusive floor generals in the league.
That can't be cast aside like it's one of Nash's sweaty towels.
This was supposed to be the year Bryant fell off, the season his age and penchant for playing through bumps, bruises, sprains, breaks and missing limbs (kidding) finally caught up with him. But it hasn't.
At 34, Kobe still leads the Lakers in minutes played per game (38.6) and is fourth in the league overall. In fact, he's one of just three players aged 31 or older receiving 35-plus minutes of burn per night. That's enough to tire out even Jennings or Irving themselves, let alone a 17-year veteran.
Still, Bryant fights.
For a team that is readily cognizant of his excessive use and is hanging on to its championship aspirations by a mangled thread, he fights.
In every facet of the game, he fights—defense included.
"He's always going to be focal point or the lightning rod of a lot of things here in Los Angeles," D'Antoni (via McMenamin) said. 'But I've only found a guy that wants to win and as a coach, I couldn't ask for anything more than that."
Truth be told, D'Antoni could ask for even more from the exhausted yet never-yielding Bryant.
And knowing Kobe, he'd deliver.
*All stats in this article are accurate as of January 15, 2013.