The team confirmed Bryant, who in recent weeks began ramping up his practice activity, would return to the lineup against the Raptors in a two-minute, eight-second video posted to its Facebook page on Friday afternoon.
There had initially been some rumblings that Bryant would return to the lineup on Friday in Sacramento, but he and coach Mike D'Antoni ruled that out earlier in the week. Instead, the 15-time NBA All-Star returns in what many would call "the right way." He's suiting up at the Staples Center, against the franchise to which he owes his finest individual performance.
Still, Bryant acknowledged Thursday to ESPN's Dave McMenamin that the 81-point player he once was won't be returning—at least not at first:
Getting your sea legs, it takes some time to do that. That's why we have preseason games and it builds to the regular season. It just takes a while, no matter how much running and conditioning you do, to get out there and play is different. So I'm sure I'll be limited in some capacity.
Bryant was injured late in the fourth quarter in an April 12 contest against the Golden State Warriors, the Lakers' 80th game of the 2012-13 season. Planting on his foot to drive past Harrison Barnes, Bryant crumbled to the ground in agony. He underwent surgery the next day and missed the Lakers' first-round playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs.
While the timetable surrounding his injury has been fluid—owner Jim Buss at one point claimed he'd return for the preseason—Bryant has been characteristic in his self-belief. In an August appearance in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, he claimed that his recovery would "shatter" the expected timetable because of a still-unknown quirk in his surgical procedure.
It didn't quite work out that way. Weeks turned into months, and Bryant slowly backed away from any bold proclamations. He understandably balked at putting a timetable on his return, even after being cleared for basketball activities in November and signing a two-year extension with the club.
His return puts him right in the middle of the six- to nine-month absence he was initially expected to endure.
Though a majority of that absence was structured around the NBA's offseason—Bryant missed a total of just 19 games—he returns to a Lakers organization far different from the one he left.
Dwight Howard, Metta World Peace and numerous other contributors are gone, replaced by a cabal of low-cost players designed to run D'Antoni's system. Former castoffs like Nick Young and Xavier Henry have carved out niches, and 12 different Lakers (10 who qualify) are averaging 10 or more minutes per contest.
Pau Gasol has been chief among them, acting as the star-in-charge while Bryant has been away. He leads the Lakers in points and rebounds and has taken an increased distributing role from the elbows, a necessary evil of both Bryant and Steve Nash being out with injuries.
Heading into Sunday's contest, the unconventional team composition has worked out better than expected. The Lakers have played the first quarter of the season hovering around the .500 mark, sitting just outside the Western Conference No. 8 seed with a 10-9 record.
The centerpiece to making the playoffs in the Western Conference gauntlet will be Bryant. The 35-year-old guard is coming off a season in which he averaged 27.3 points, 6.0 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game while taking over Nash's role as a primary distributor. Los Angeles averaged nearly eight points more per 100 possessions with Bryant on the floor, per NBA.com.
With the season going well, the Lakers will have no choice but to hope Bryant's confidence comes with tangible production.
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