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Father Time Finally Catching Up to Kobe Bryant, and It's a Sight No One Enjoys

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterJanuary 12, 2015

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LOS ANGELES — Gone is the arrogance that comes with having the unsinkable Kobe Bryant.

There's a certain sadness to the Los Angeles Lakers these days.

The start of the season saw the same old in-your-face determination from the franchise that Kobe could still be Kobe. The mentality was more indignant than ever, actually, because of the way new coach Byron Scott believed, preached and grandstanded.   

Now that spirit has been defeated.

Critics need not even mock Bryant's salary or shooting percentage anymore. Something greater is now out of whack, and it's not the kind of failure that's fun to argue over.

Scott ignored the warning signs and broke the classic engine down. It's not the flat-tire Achilles rupture or the cracked-rear-axle knee fracture. This has to do with the very fire inside—the spark to ignite and run.

The humbling continued Sunday night at the Staples Center, where Bryant did not play for the fifth time in 11 games, simply opting for rest as the Lakers fell to Portland, 106-94. Scott stopped by the confessional beforehand to take the blame for pushing Bryant to "overload."

"I was wrong," Scott said to reporters about his insistence on over-utilizing Bryant.

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Now, Scott is trying to un-unspool Bryant's yarn, if possible.

"I guess I'm just trying to kind of make up for all the minutes I played him earlier," Scott said. "Get him more rest."

Bryant showed signs of being refreshed after his initial three-game break over Christmas. He accepted failure, spoke of his body not letting him do all the things he was used to doing as a relentless offensive attacker and proceeded to average 14.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 7.8 assists in five games while taking a calmer, quieter role.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 04:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on from the bench during the game against the Indiana Pacers at Staples Center on January 4, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.The Lakers won 88-87.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Then what initially seemed to be Bryant sitting out the second game of a back-to-back set as a precaution swirled into more. Two days later, Bryant turned in a noticeably tepid outing in a blowout loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. (Nevertheless, Scott played Bryant the entire third quarter that night despite the Lakers losing by at least 30 points most of the period.)

Two days after that, Bryant sat out again. Another two days, and now another game missed.

Scott said Sunday that Bryant isn't injured: "I'm not concerned about his health at all. I want him to be right."

There has been no thought to shutting Bryant down for the season at any point. After all, Tim Duncan sits out regular-season games to save himself to make another championship run. Bryant would be sitting out only to grow older and idler.

There's reason to believe Bryant will return Tuesday night against Miami and try to get his rhythm back in advance of the Thursday night TNT showcase against LeBron James and Cleveland. If so, some level of normalcy will return to Staples Center.

Bryant can still play well, there is no doubt. Devotees can argue that with a stiff back and sore knees, he still commands double-teams, was the oldest ever to post a 23-11-11 triple-double less than two weeks ago and stands sixth in the NBA in scoring.

But they can't believe in the power of his perseverance as they always have. That part of the legend is finally in the past.

Kobe used to get hit in the mouth, taste the blood and thirst for more competition. He prided himself on beating every doctor's recovery timetable. He won the NBA title with a fracture in his right index finger in 2010, dropped 40 game after game with a torn ligament in his right wrist in 2012 and in two days went from severe ankle sprain and out indefinitely to playing the next game in 2013.

Bryant has been—Phil Jackson said so himself—Michael Jordan's superior in managing his body and playing through pain.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 04:  Solomon Hill #44 of the Indiana Pacers takes an inbound pass in the backcourt against the press of Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on January 4, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  the Lakers won 88
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

That sheer will has been an inspiration to fans and teammates alike. Beyond basketball, consistency translates into faith that the job will always get done.

So as Bryant's days off have mushroomed from most practices now to some games, it's no longer the same at all.

Sure, it's inevitable that it's not the same, and a more measured approach from Bryant can still pay dividends the rest of his career. But it's still a jarring loss for a franchise taught to expect nothing less than Bryant's diligence and dedication.

These last three games Bryant just missed have been bookended by epic fourth-quarter uprisings from Portland's rising star Damian Lillard. Sixteen points in the final 5:12 to rally the Trail Blazers past the Lakers last Tuesday. Seventeen points in the final 8:16 to blow open a tight game Sunday night.

Lillard has a long way to go in crafting a career as transcendent as Bryant's, but he has established faith that he can get the job done.

"He has a knack for those moments," said LaMarcus Aldridge, who might well have been reading some old quote from Pau Gasol about Bryant. "I think he wants to be great in those moments. I've seen him do it over and over again, so I'm never surprised by that."

Gasol was one of Bryant's championship brothers. He's gone, as was Lamar Odom three years ago.

Bryant remains to play another day for now, yes, but it's not the same.

Losing with an inferior roster and Bryant's body breaking down were both predictable, logical developments, yet only the latter demise feels personal.

Machines malfunction, companies lose business and the Lakers go through rebuilding projects.

Fair enough.

But people grow old. Kobe has to sit down.

What a bummer.

 

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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