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Enjoy Vintage Kobe Bryant While You Can

Michael Pina@@MichaelVPinaFeatured ColumnistDecember 15, 2015

Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant smiles when he sees former NBA player Tracy McGrady at the NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, in Houston. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — In the 24th game of his final season, a farewell tour to end all farewell tours, Kobe Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers lost by 29 points to a vastly superior yet unpredictable Houston Rockets team that, at times, looked bored with its opponent.

It was L.A.'s 21st loss, which is four more than anyone else in the Western Conference, and only three fewer than the pitiful Philadelphia 76ers. But for Bryant, the performance stood out as a stark contrast to the inefficient 37-year-old effigy he's been most of this year. It was by far his best all-around statement: 25 points, seven rebounds, six assists, three steals and zero turnovers. 

Bryant shot a season-high 56.3 percent (including 4-of-9 from deep), and the Lakers outscored the Rockets by 2.5 points per 100 possessions in the 31 minutes he was on the floor, per NBA.com. Given that L.A. lost by nearly 30, that's significant. 

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Bryant's influence on the game was obvious. Unlike previous nights during which he focused on putting the ball in the basket at every and any cost—of the 86 players who average at least 30 minutes per night, Bryant is 78th in passes per game, per SportVU—in Houston he was charitable, a ball mover who drew two defenders with the intention and desire to feed open teammates. 

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All this could change overnight, but right now it looks like the beginning of a trend. In the first four contests of the Lakers' eight-game road trip, Bryant shot 27.4 percent from the floor and 25 percent from behind the three-point line. He averaged 17.5 points and 2.8 assists per game.

But over the last four outings we've seen a more precise and noble incarnation of the second-greatest shooting guard in basketball history. Bryant's scoring average (17.3 points) didn't change much, but his field-goal percentage leapt to 47.4; his three-point percentage to 35.0. His turnovers were down (from 2.5 per game to two) and  his assists shot up to 3.8. 

It's a positive for Los Angeles when Bryant gets others involved and doesn't clog the offense with untimely jumpers that have little to no chance of going in. But why the improvement in recent days? Is it in some way related to reduced minutes?

"I think the more rest I give him, the more efficient he can be," Lakers head coach Byron Scott said after the team's practice Monday. "I try to keep him out of practice as much as possible and just really get him prepared for the games. There's nothing in practice that he needs to learn. In the game situations, it's real easy to tell him what to do as far as our coverages are concerned. He just comes ready, and I thought this road trip, especially these last three or four games, he really looked relaxed and in a nice little rhythm."

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 04:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers converses with Byron Scott during the game against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on December 4, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Aside from minutes, Los Angeles' altered rotation—with Lou Williams and Larry Nance Jr. in the starting lineup—is another variable that might've factored into Bryant's improved play, but Scott doesn't buy that theory.

"I think [Bryant] approaches the game as it is," he said. "Every game is its own little entity, and I think that's how he looks at it." 

It's worth discussing how Bryant's being used within the Lakers offense and how he's frequently placed in positions to create for others. Here's a pair of examples from the Rockets game, and there was similar action in Friday's 22-point loss to the San Antonio Spurs

NBA.com

Here, we have Bryant running a pick-and-roll with Nance, and it leads to an open layup. But there's a twist: Instead of starting the play with the ball in his hands, Bryant curls off Nance's screen on the weak side and catches a pass from D'Angelo Russell while moving toward the center of the floor. Every other Laker is positioned on the strong side, which allows enough room to operate. 

This is Bryant at his best, reading defensive coverages like a children's book and maximizing his team's chance at an efficient shot with some simple yet effective playmaking. His teammates certainly appreciate it.

"Of course getting rest is helping him," Jordan Clarkson said. "But at the same time, I think he's taking good shots, taking advantage of moving the ball and stuff as well. I think he's done a better job of that these last games."

Here's a more traditional pick-and-roll with Nance, but the result is the same. The rookie power forward rolls hard, and instead of firing up a three, Bryant rewards his teammate with an unselfish jump pass.

NBA.com

"He sees the game a whole lot different than all these young guys," Scott said. "First of all, most great players, the game is so slow for them—they see everything happen before it happens. [Bryant] just knows our offense extremely well, and he knows where everybody is going to be, and he knows all eyes are going to be on him when he has the ball, so he's able to create opportunities for our guys to get wide-open shots."

Sure, these last few games had their fair share of hero ball sprinkled in and featured one too many contested shots that sputtered Los Angeles' attack. But Bryant's bottom-line efficiency overshadowed even his most self-serving decisions. 

The days of him slicing through a loaded defense are over, but his mind is better than ever.

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

Bryant's influence has been weightless for much of this season, but recently he's held the legitimate gravitas of a star—with actual impact to back it up. In terms of efficiency and box score numbers, these nights will be few and far between.

But Bryant's selflessness is something that can travel from game to game, possession to possession. It's the one power he can still control and lean on whenever he chooses to do so, and it's encouraging to watch him finally put it to good use. Time, however, is not on his side.

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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