OKLAHOMA CITY — Kobe Bryant doesn’t really want to take, and still can’t really make, a jump shot.
Mike D’Antoni delivered an effective clear-the-air, unifying message to the team at the morning shootaround, then raved about Pau Gasol’s improvement, and the team still went on to a 25-point loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Gasol then pointed away from Oklahoma City and to the next game, against the 10-13 Charlotte Bobcats on Saturday, as the “big game.”
But when I asked Bryant late Friday night if the Lakers’ 0-3 record and overall ugliness since he returned from his Achilles tendon rupture have detracted from what was supposed to be a joyous comeback, he brought up how far the Lakers are from something else.
“I’m not worried about it, to be honest with you,” Bryant said. “We’ve seen worse. I mean, we forget kind of what we had to go through last year. I’m not really too concerned about it. Our heart is in the right place.
“I saw a lot of positives. We’ve just got to put it together for longer stretches. We’ll be fine.”
The Lakers having their heart in the right place is a reference to Dwight Howard and all the insidiousness that limited them last season through their shockingly long, slow start. That team struggled so much just to make the smallest progress, and it was deeply frustrating for Bryant and Gasol, who know that a great team deals with conflicts and confusion quickly.
Bryant and Gasol seeing former teammate Derek Fisher across the way in an Oklahoma City uniform brought back some of those memories of greater teams. Fisher, playing his final NBA season, is in a great position to break his tie with Bryant and win a sixth NBA title. And it’s obvious that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are a latter-day Bryant and Gasol who can make it happen now.
Fisher was on the court in the second quarter Friday night against five guys he never knew as Lakers, a testament to how much change Bryant and Gasol have withstood since Fisher’s 2012 departure.
The Thunder led by nine points when Durant joined Fisher on the floor, with Westbrook soon to follow. By the time Bryant and Gasol got back in four minutes later, Oklahoma City's lead was 18. Even in a game in which the old Lakers’ championship duo did what D’Antoni referred to as their “little special thing together,” the Lakers were routed.
But they are trying to focus on steadily making the kind of small progress that eluded them with Howard. In that regard, it was encouraging to see Bryant and Gasol communicating and adjusting and helping make each other more effective through a two-man game the Lakers will focus on until they get point guard Jordan Farmar back from his hamstring injury.
Bryant sometimes threw passes that forced Gasol to move to get them, asking Gasol for more effort in a far different way than D’Antoni has through passive-aggressive swipes in the media. Bryant had already pushed Gasol with a public comment Thursday about it perhaps being a good idea for the Spaniard to lose some weight.
Gasol’s answer Friday night was that he got to camp at 270 pounds and was down to 259 at the last weigh-in with the very decrease in body-fat percentage that he was seeking—in fact, “probably the best that I’ve been in my career,” he said.
Gasol was limited in his offseason workouts with three months of inactivity from tendon-regenerating procedures in both knees, but he is encouraged by how the knees feel and his improving fitness. Gasol did agree with Bryant’s point, noting how longtime rivals Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki have slimmed down and perked up, so perhaps he can progress further.
“That’s a way to prolong and lengthen your career, so I understand where (Bryant) is coming from,” Gasol said.
The once-great partnership remains strong and trusting, even if it’s not expected to continue beyond this season with Gasol’s impending free agency.
“He knows me. He knows what I can do,” Gasol said. “He knows everything. He studies the game. He pays attention to everything.”
Bryant scoffed at the idea that an irreparable rift might be developing in the team because of Gasol and D’Antoni, whom he likened to “an old couple.” Bryant said they squabbled over Gasol’s usage on offense last season also and said about it now: “It’s not really anything.”
Indeed, Gasol made clear his inefficiency is not something for which he should be blaming D’Antoni.
“I put it on me,” Gasol said. “I can only control myself. I can only control what I do...For the most part, I think you have to make yourself responsible.”
So just as it seemed Gasol was getting fed up with D’Antoni’s limited post-up system and D’Antoni was getting annoyed with Gasol’s listlessness, they seemed to gain greater understanding. Gasol was downright chipper after the game, even muttering funny obscenities about stepping in some sticky goop in front of his locker: “It’s like a Gummy Bear or some (expletive),” he said, smiling.
Gasol and D’Antoni got back on the same page that quickly again, which never happened last season. That’s what Bryant was talking about; that’s why this doesn’t feel so bad and maybe isn’t going to be as bad as everybody thinks.
Fisher’s leadership is gone, and there’s certainly no Durant and Westbrook, and they really need some interior team defense…but Bryant and Gasol are still happy to have what they do have. True loyalty or blind devotion, it’s something worth sharing.
“He’s going to help me,” Gasol said. “I’m going to help him. I’m going to help the rest of the guys. And that’s how the team is going to be better.”