LOS ANGELES — Always betting on himself, Kobe Bryant was doing it again Sunday night.
Pushing his chips in despite a streak of bad beats. Hoping the next hand turns the tide. Believing his skill shall triumph over mere luck.
According to the Kobe calculator, the more misses already in a box score, the more makes he is due—particularly as the game is being decided.
This, however, was not the same Kobe.
It wasn't just the lack of foot speed.
There was no confidence in the way he was playing. It was desperation.
And therein lies the difference between a great gamer and a bad gambler.
These shots were beyond his usual forced ones. He was taking contested and out-of-rhythm three-pointers. When he did work his way a little closer to the basket, he was moving himself to his preferred spots on the court instead of reading the defense the way he has done better than almost anyone to play this game.
So after Bryant had missed 12-of-15 shots on the night and the Dallas Mavericks had their wire-to-wire 103-93 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in a battle of expected also-rans, Bryant sat with a towel over his shoulders in bewilderment.
"I freaking suck," he said.
That wasn't even the most damning postgame quote.
"I'm getting the shots I want," Bryant also said.
That's the statement that reeks of a guy who is sitting at the blackjack table, drunk and delusional, and liable to split 10s in hopes of regaining ground faster.
Bryant has launched 29 three-pointers in the Lakers' first three games this season. He has made six, which is 20.7 percent. But the idea that about 10 three-pointers a game reflect the shots Bryant wants is ludicrous—especially with his shooting base less sturdy after a calf bruise cost him two weeks in training camp.
Bryant didn't use that as an excuse, although it's undeniable his comeback was derailed by buddy Rajon Rondo, beaten baseline, slyly sticking a leg out to trip Bryant in the Oct. 13 Kings-Lakers exhibition. (Bryant fell calf-first into Kosta Koufos.)
A renewed strength in his base was a main source of Bryant's optimism about this season: The torn rotator cuff to his shooting shoulder was hardly ideal, but it at least was an upper-body injury that allowed him to work out his lower body for basically all of 2015. He needed that after being undercut by his recent knee and Achilles injuries.
He tried a sleeve over his left calf in the opener but discarded it. He turned to full leggings in Game 2 in Sacramento. He came back in Game 3 with just a sleeve on his left knee (the one he spent the first half of 2014 waiting to heal from fracture).
The net result: Bryant is shooting 31.4 percent, and the Lakers are 0-3—losing to relative lightweights in the form of Minnesota, Sacramento and Dallas. The Lakers are minus-18.5 points per game with Bryant on the floor (versus minus-4.9 without him), a trend already established early last season.
Which brings us to two points: One, coach Byron Scott is far too regimented about sticking with his preplanned rotation. He subbed out Julius Randle in the first half and D'Angelo Russell in the second half when they were clearly rolling Sunday night. But when Bryant is playing poorly and taking bad shots, Scott wouldn't dream of pulling Bryant to send him a message stressing the need to play the right way.
Two, Scott has proved to be the biggest Kobe fanboy in an organization with many of them—and that's unfortunate, because Bryant needs real help more than ever.
Bryant needs to be put in positions to succeed and limited to those positions—at least until he has something from which to build.
For all his brilliance, and partly because of it, Bryant is fundamentally a challenge to coach. No one but Phil Jackson has really been able to do it, and even Jackson had mixed results. We've suspected all along that it might be thorny for Bryant to accept his limitations late in his career. The Lakers' hope was that a true friend in Scott would be able to genuinely communicate with Bryant in a way no other coach could.
Yet, Scott showed last season he can't be objective with regard to Bryant. Remember, it was Scott who pushed Bryant to play more minutes than even Bryant believed were safe for him—because Scott expected Bryant would just beat the world the way he used to.
This season, Scott looks even more like he's just here as an enabler.
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle offered a stunning contrast in his economical and strategic usage of Dirk Nowitzki, who made 10-of-13 shots for Dallas in the victory. Carlisle even sat Nowitzki for the last 2:27 of the game despite it not being decided yet.
Opponents are game-planning to keep Bryant on the perimeter, and he has been sucked into that. Despite Bryant's sweeping, self-deprecating comments Sunday, he knows he can still play. If he focuses on higher-percentage plays, shots will fall again.
Until then, Bryant is just gambling away his winnings.
With such a great career, you might say he can afford to.
Yet with such a great career, you especially want him to go out with dignity.