Can This New Kobe Bryant Save the Los Angeles Lakers' Season?
It was always going to happen this way. Kobe Bryant carrying the day, willing his team to victory.
Thing is, nobody—not even Kobe, not the Los Angeles Lakers—could've imagined it'd happen this way.
For the third time in as many games, the Lakers tore up the old script and dove head-first into their latest attempt to turn around what'd been an abysmal 2012-13 NBA season. This time, it was the New Orleans Hornets who met their maker at the hands of L.A.'s offensive juggernaut in a 111-106 affair.
There was Dwight Howard, a lightweight on the boards (four rebounds) who nonetheless impacted the game offensively (24 points on 9-of-13 shooting) and defensively (five steals, four blocks). There was Steve Nash, lining up for a big three-pointer in crunch time. There was Pau Gasol, contributing triple sevens (points, rebounds and assists) off the bench.
And there was Kobe, leading the Lakers in assists, registering his third near-triple-double in as many games and propelling them to victory. Never before in Kobe's career had he racked up as many helpers (39) as he has during this latest of Lakers winning streaks.
Kobe on his ability to switch from shooting guard to point guard so easily: "I'm like Neo out this m----- f-----"— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) January 30, 2013
The question is, can Kobe keep this Magic Johnson mirage going long enough to propel the Lakers back into the Western Conference playoff picture?
The answer: Why not?
For better or worse, "fixing" the Lakers was always going to be Kobe's burden to bear. He went out of his way during the preseason to make it known that this was his team. Evidently, he wasn't pleased with the fact that "his" team had fallen eight games below the .500 mark in January.
It was Kobe's job to adjust his own game to better fit the needs of this team, as talented as everyone else was. But injuries and turnover amongst the roster and coaching staff made it rather difficult for everyone (the Black Mamba included) to figure out how to fill in the gaps.
So, naturally, Bryant resorted to doing what he does best—put the ball in the basket—and he did so quite well...for a time, anyway. He was leading the NBA in scoring and shooting at levels never before seen in his Hall of Fame career.
But the Lakers weren't winning. They needed something else—something to transform their collection of individual stars into a cohesive unit.
Apparently, they talked it over before their last loss, to the Memphis Grizzlies. And apparently that conversation touched on Kobe trading in his snake-like persona for that of a chameleon.
At least, that's how it all seems to have played out, in a nutshell, with some of the juicier tidbits set aside.
So far, so good. The Lakers racked up a season-high 34 assists on 39 makes against the future Pelicans. They were running pick-and-rolls and pushing the pace at times, while also dumping the ball into triangular sets out of the high post at others.
And there was Kobe, lubricating a piecemeal machine of a team that suddenly seems to have an identity.
They needed someone to create space for the team's bigs with steady outside shooting, so they moved Nash, one of the sharpest shooters in NBA history, off the ball. They needed someone to cover for the team's problems defending the perimeter, so they slotted Earl Clark into the starting lineup next to Dwight and Metta World Peace. They needed a steady presence amongst the reserves, so they shifted Gasol to the bench.
But for those stars to make such sacrifices, and for Mike D'Antoni to ease up on his stubborn coaching philosophy, they needed Kobe to lead the way, to sacrifice his own strengths for the good of the squad.
Again, so far, so good. And, again, why shouldn't this last, at least for a bit?
Can the Kobe Bryant keep up his Magic act long enough to save the Lakers?
Kobe now knows what he needs to do for these Lakers to win, and they know what they need from him. He's always been a supreme talent—a gifted student of the game who's managed to adapt to new teammates and new competition in an ever-changing league.
For Kobe, it's a matter of "merely" redirecting the energy he normally exerts from scoring and shooting toward passing, handling and creating space and opportunities for others. It's a matter of turning on the playoff switch and being more of a facilitator than a scoring assassin, as ESPN's J.A. Adande recently pointed out.
Really, that's why fans and casual observers alike can expect to see more Kobe-as-Magic going forward—because every game is a playoff of sorts for the Lakers going forward. Three wins in a row are nice, but they still leave the Lakers, at 20-25, a full five games under .500 and four behind the Houston Rockets for eighth place out West.
The teams immediately ahead of L.A. (i.e. Houston, Utah, Portland) may well continue to fade, as they have in recent weeks. But at this point, Kobe and company can't count on it. They can only count on him, as Bryant has so often implored the world via Twitter hashtag.
Kobe's done well to play the part of Magic since Jan. 25. Now, he must play that of magician.
His next trick? Make those who counted out his Lakers look like fools. Turn the narrative on its ear. Smash expectations every which way.
All in service of saving the Lakers from their own trespasses.
He's not going to solve the Purple and Gold's problems on defense. Few players (if any) could. They're slow and old on the perimeter and sapped by age (Pau) and injuries (Pau and Dwight) along the back line. Their defensive effort flows (and must flow) from their offense, which means everyone has to be on their toes and involved in what's going on.
Frankly, the Lakers aren't going to beat teams by grinding it out on the defensive end, certainly not this season. The only way they're salvaging the remainder of the 2012-13 campaign is through ball movement and strong offensive execution, with solid defense coming in fits and spurts.
And the only person fit to rescue this operation is Kobe. Win or lose, this team's performance was always going to be contingent on what Bryant had to give, even with the addition of two elite talents in Dwight and Nash.
So far—through this, the bajillionth season restart for the once-lost-and-maybe-now-found Lakers—so good.
Now comes the seven-game Grammy road trip, with five dates against sub-.500 teams. If Kobe can conjure this magic of his while away from the Staples Center, then surely, the Lakers have a shot at redemption.
Fittingly enough, L.A.'s phoenix-like rise from the ashes will continue on Wednesday against (you guessed it!) the Phoenix Suns.
Whichever way Kobe can make it happen.
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