Kobe Bryant has been playing angry for the past month or so. Can you really blame him? All this talk about the mighty Lakers playing second fiddle to the upstart Los Angeles Clippers has to be maddening to such a driven individual. While there are degrees of intensity apparent in any competition, Bryant's recent offensive onslaught is part sinister sorcery, part military genius and part offensive alchemy, as he is currently averaging 33 PPG and eight assists in the month of March. After being out of the playoff picture for most of the season, the Los Angeles Lakers have crept into the eighth and final playoff spot, formerly occupied by the Utah Jazz.
With Bryant acting as the driving force, the Lakers have surged out of the gate since the All-Star break and are boasting a record of 9-4 in the month of February, and have started March off on the right foot as well with wins over the Atlanta Hawks, the Toronto Raptors and New Orleans Hornets.
The short-sighted among us might ask why such a storied franchise as the Lakers would be celebrating sitting near .500 (33-31) this late in the season. They need only look to January to uncover an abysmal 5-11 record, and a 7-7 record looms not far behind that in December 2012. Yes, the raucous applauds you hear spilling from the Staples Center these days is not canned, digital or piped in. It's the real thing.
Many basketball analysts had picked the Lakers as their most disappointing team in the NBA at the All-Star break. With all the attention swirling around their offseason acquisitions of center Dwight Howard and point guard Steve Nash, the Lakers looked like the team to beat on paper.
But the rest of the league soon realized they were paper tigers, as Nash missed 24 games because of a fracture in his lower left leg and Dwight Howard's chemistry with Kobe Bryant was exposed as being non-existent. The nightmare continued for Lakers fans as Dwight Howard's nagging shoulder injury flared up on several occasions.
After having missed much of the season, Steve Nash finally suited up in December for the Lakers with mixed results. Yes, he can still shoot with the best of them. Can he run a championship-caliber team? Probably not, but I'm willing to be proven wrong. His diminished quickness makes it all the more difficult to get in to the paint, and is the likely reason why Kobe is essentially running the point during crunch time and allowing Nash to spot up. At age 39, can Nash defend? Perhaps the better question should be, has he ever been able to defend? Then you had former All-Star forward Pau Gasol begin to pout about his role in coach Mike D'Antoni's offense. The pouting seemed to wane a bit just before he injured himself in February, placing him on the injury list for 6-8 weeks.
Speaking of D'Antoni, it was also evident in the early part of the season that the Lakers, borrowing from former New York Jets LB Bart Scott, couldn't stop a nosebleed. The bleeding hasn't completely stopped either. Los Angeles is currently ranked 25th in the NBA in total points allowed. This was glaringly apparent in Los Angeles' 105-122 blowout loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 5.
But what the Lakers lack in defense, they make up for in scoring (102.4, ranked eighth in the NBA ), and that starts and ends with Kobe Bryant. Can anyone but the most casual NBA fan be surprised at the late season resurgence of the Gold and Purple? The Los Angeles Lakers are paving their own road to glory in the Western Conference playoff picture. Like tales of an ancient, horrific legend that Utah Jazz fans tell before a campfire, Bryant has arisen and is slashing and burning opponents with bloodcurdling precision!
On February 18, the world lost the most successful owner in NBA history when Lakers owner Jerry Buss died from kidney failure. He was being treated for an undisclosed form of cancer and had not attended any Laker games in the 2012 season. Perhaps Bryant was simply trying to give Buss, a man who Bryant had known since he was a child, a season to remember prior to his untimely demise.
On February 24, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban hypothetically said the Lakers should amnesty the 34-year-old Bryant while speaking with Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas. Why oh why did Cuban have to go and say that? Why did he give Bryant, seemingly always in a surly mood these days, another reason to dance on the brittle, broken remains of a once championship-caliber Dallas Mavericks team? Cuban would later say he was only using Bryant as an example. But the damage was already done. Bryant would finish the game with 38 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists.
Kobe Bryant is famous for saying he only plays for championships, and that is what he is pushing for now. You thought it was the playoffs? No, the playoffs are only a step along the way. The fire in his eyes, the clenched teeth and intermittent berserker tantrums taken out on the rim tell a story of a different Bryant. Not one of stealth, speed and venom.
No, these days he doesn't seem much like a Black Mamba at all, but a barbarian. While still as deadly as the Black Mamba ever was, Kobe the Barbarian is brutal, fierce and possessed by a basketball bloodlust. Google the word "vino" and you will likely find it being used to describe Bryant's recent play, as many feel he is aging like fine wine—vino being Italian for wine. But wine never aged this well. He's looking more like a bottle of Welch's Grape Juice to a Laker Nation that is thirsty for wins; fresh and refreshing.
The Lakers currently hold the eighth seed in the west if the playoffs were to start today, and it looks like Utah isn't in position to do anything about it. A win against the Detroit Pistons on Monday brought Utah's record to 5-7 over the past month. With their next five games being against playoff-caliber teams in Oklahoma City, Memphis, New York, San Antonio and Houston, I don't see the playoff picture in Utah getting sunnier anytime soon.
The Houston Rockets are hoping to ride neo-superstar James Harden and the increasingly more reliable Jeremy Lin into the playoffs with the seventh seed. But the Rockets are only 6-5 since February 12. If the Lakers continue their current upward trend and the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets continue treading water, the Los Angeles Lakers might end up scratching and clawing their way to the sixth seed currently occupied by the Golden State Warriors.
If that happens, then all bets are off once the playoffs start. I don't think anyone in the West wants to see an angry Bryant and a Dwight Howard who may finally be playing with something of a chip on his massive shoulders in the playoffs. Not the Denver Nuggets, not Kevin Durant, not Chris Paul, not anyone. In the end, it doesn't matter if opponents succumb to the Black Mamba's venomous fade-away, or are bludgeoned mercilessly by Bryant's fearsome forays to the hoop, the final result will be the same, a helpless defender.