The demoralizing: They didn’t just lose, they completely lost that winning feeling. Now they’re on the road for the next four games, starting in Oklahoma City on Friday night.
How rough were the past two for the Lakers at Staples Center? At no time during Bryant’s return game against the Toronto Raptors did the Lakers hold the lead. In their follow-up against the Phoenix Suns, the Lakers led for all of 40 seconds—as long as Steve Blake’s opening three-pointer held up.
That’s not a fun or confidence-building way to spend your first two nights with the guy who Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni acknowledged was potentially viewed as “our savior,” particularly after building a winning record without him.
Still, let’s put that winning record into some context.
Going 10-9 was something the Lakers were proud of and earned through the old-school tenets of effort and teamwork. It’s logical now for doubt to creep in as to all that good stuff the Lakers are shuffling away to accommodate a clearly ground-bound Bryant.
(Yes, he did dunk in Game 2, but it really wasn’t that much more authoritative than the “strong layup” he joked about flushing with his left hand in practice. Another time, he had a clear path down the lane Tuesday night, and he just flipped the ball up for a basket.)
But as we evaluate this awkward time for the Lakers, please step back and view it reasonably.
This is like the Lakers breaking up with a really nice girl who wasn’t going to deliver the best marriage. The Lakers need Bryant’s talent, plus that sweet chemistry, if they hope to shock the world instead of overachieving for some pleasantly non-horrible season. There is no option but to figure out how to work Bryant into this mix.
D’Antoni’s explanation about reluctantly letting Bryant play (and play poorly) in crunch time during his return game revealed that much.
“Maybe you lose the skirmish, and then the battle is bigger,” D’Antoni said. “Obviously, we’re going to ride Kobe, so we might as well get it over with.”
Despite how high the imaginary expectations became, that’s how the Lakers saw this stage—as a necessary evil. It’s part of the process.
It’s the loneliness after the breakup while naturally wondering if something better will indeed come along.
Yes, they hoped they could sputter and still survive a schedule that sent the thin Raptors and unpolished Suns into town, but the Lakers clearly didn’t deserve to win either game.
Bryant played the first game as little more than a fill-in point guard for a Lakers team sorely missing both Steve Nash and Jordan Farmar. Then, Bryant shook the team up even further against Phoenix by moving into a wing position so that he could set screens and attack closer to the basket, sending Xavier Henry back to pseudo-point guard, and sending the team’s spacing and role problems into greater disarray.
Bryant has the versatility to do so many things that making him a guard made some sense, especially considering how well he carved up defenses with his passing in recent practices and played pick-and-roll so well that Nash was sent off the ball last season.
But as he finds his way back, Bryant needs more of a comfort zone. So the Lakers gave it to him.
“That’s my go-to stuff; that’s rhythm stuff,” said Bryant, who played guard in his early years for Phil Jackson before shifting into a Michael Jordan-style wing striker. “Catching it in the mid-post area and facing up and operating from there, that’s stuff I’ve been doing for years. I feel very comfortable doing that.
“As far as going to the basket, that’s something completely different. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do that or not, but I figured I would just try it.”
Playing Bryant at small forward makes more sense given the proficiency that both Blake and Farmar have shown at point guard, with Nash still a possibility to return, too. Jodie Meeks has been stellar at shooting guard, and as much as Shawne Williams fits the mold as a stretch 4 at power forward, the Lakers’ ideal scenario is for Wesley Johnson to keep improving and become Shawn Marion as an undersized power forward, with Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill at center.
So, here’s the good: Aside from Bryant putting together a nice 20-point line on Tuesday night, the Lakers also figured out a few things. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak was encouraged by what he saw as distinct improvement from Bryant, suggesting in an interview on Wednesday with Time Warner Cable SportsNet that relationship stability—and success—lies ahead.
“Once they get familiar with each other,” Kupchak said, “we’re going to be winning games at a pretty good clip.”
But from an even longer view, the truth of it is that Bryant has to be the Lakers’ spouse. That’s just all there is to it.
The club not only locked itself in by signing Bryant to a two-year extension before seeing him back in action, but it doesn't want to live any other way.
Kobe is must-see TV. As well as Meeks has played and however many highlight moments Johnson has provided, it’s safe to say that more people have Lakers jerseys with Meeks’ No. 20 and “PAYTON” on the back or Johnson’s No. 11 and “MALONE.”
The Lakers revolve around Bryant. The other guys know it fully, too. As Henry said about Bryant’s integration: “Everybody in the world knows it’s going to be different.”
This season was never supposed to boil down to tapping into the potential of some under-the-radar guys. On the black T-shirts handed out to fans Tuesday night by the Lakers, the twisting snake’s fangs are exposed, and the sentiment about one player and one hope is emblazoned on the front: “SHOW US AGAIN.”