Lakers’ Bryant More Tenacious Than Ever?
Of all of the unique storylines coming into the 2012-13 NBA season, the buildup and subsequent fall of the Los Angeles Lakers has to be the most interesting. After creating a virtual super team that was considered a lock by most NBA fans and pundits to at least be contenders out West, the Lakers have struggled mightily this season as a result of both injuries and ineptitude.
As has been par for the course over the duration of his career since entering the NBA out of high school in 1996, Kobe Bryant continues to be the face of this franchise and has led the way in trying to carry his team out of the abyss. After a poor start to the season, the Lakers have started to turn things around over the last month and a half – sporting a 15-6 record since the start of February.
Even though the Lakers now find themselves in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference and are moving up in the standings, the uphill climb hasn’t been easy on Bryant. Considering Bryant has spent nearly half of his life (almost 17 seasons now) playing on an NBA floor, it isn’t a shock that this tumultuous season in L.A. may have taken it’s toll.
“I certainly didn’t envision being this doggone tired at this point of the season and having to work this hard,” Bryant told ESPN’s Michael Wilbon. “It is what it is. We didn’t picture losing our head coach early into the season, having Steve [Nash] go down with a freak fracture in his leg in the second game of the season. Pau [Gasol], him being out. We never envisioned it. The biggest part is we stuck together through all the ups and downs and now we’re playing pretty good basketball.”
“It was going to be less taxing,” Bryant said of his expectations before the year. “It took so much from everybody because of all the injuries we had. I had to step up and take on added responsibility, Dwight [Howard] had to do the same thing then he goes down. Pau being shuffled in and out of the lineup, coaching change and system change. Then we get a groove and we’re playing well, all of the sudden another injury. We have to re-adjust. It’s been a season of adjustments.”
The addition of two-time MVP point guard Steve Nash was supposed to take some of the pressure off of Bryant on the offensive end, but it’s actually been quite the opposite this season. The exodus of former head coach Mike Brown just a handful of games into November and the subsequent hiring of Mike D’Antoni reversed course for the Lakers. Now, Bryant is playing an even greater role as distributor for this team while still shouldering the offensive load.
“Yeah, it’s different,” Bryant said. “In this type of system, it’s different. The floor is spread, you end up quarterbacking things a lot more. In the past, in the triangle for example, the offense pretty much dictated the actions. Now it’s reversed. I dictate the action. You have to make a lot of reads. It’s different than it used to be.”
Even though he’s being relied upon as much as ever to drive this Lakers team in pursuit of what seemed like a given before the year – a playoff berth – Bryant believes his body is tip top heading down the stretch.
“No, certainly not this season,” Bryant said when asked if his legs feel worn down this late in the year. “The times I’ve had that in the past it’s been due to injuries. It’s been a knee that I’ve had to deal with and manage throughout the course of the season. I don’t have those issues this year. I’m healthy, I’m strong and my legs feel fine.”
Watching Bryant’s all-out, take-no-prisoners play on the court along with his frosty, self-titled “grumpy” demeanor, it’s clear that the ferocity that has propelled him all these years hasn’t diminished. In fact, Bryant’s fuel and burning desire to get back to the mountain top before the book has closed on his illustrious career may be stronger than ever.
“I’m not concerned about the tank being on E, I’m more concerned about the engine jumping out of the car,” Bryant said. “It’s a lot of work, you’re spending so much energy and wind up breaking your body down quite a bit. The more we keep those games to a minimum the better.”
This all-in mindset was on full display this past Friday when, after severely spraining his ankle Wednesday in Atlanta, Bryant gave it a go for the Lakers against the Pacers in Indiana. Even though he played just 12 minutes and missed each of his four shots from the field, Bryant’s tenacity seemed to have a clear effect on his teammates as L.A. went on to beat the second-place team out East without their injured superstar.
“You have to get the job done by any means necessary,” Bryant said. “I’m not one to sit around and say, ‘Well I need this guy to do that or this guy to do this and that.’ You just have to do it yourself and pull everyone else with you along with you.”
In terms of Bryant’s relationships with his teammates, much has been made of the seemingly icy and wary alliance between he and offseason acquisition Dwight Howard. From Bryant calling out Howard on multiple occasions to reports of the two ignoring each other at All-Star festivities, news surrounding the Lakers duo has been tumultuous to say the least all season long.
“Get along? In the sense that we understand each other,” Bryant said. “We know what our responsibilities are for the team. Yeah, absolutely. It’s not like if you ask Dwight or myself we don’t dislike each other at all. It’s not like when Shaq [O'Neal] and I were feuding. We didn’t want to be around each other. With me and Dwight that’s not the situation. It’s not like we’re best friends either, but it’s a good understanding I think.”
Now, with just 15 games left on the year and the Utah Jazz breathing down the Lakers’ necks just a half game behind L.A. in the standings, the onus for this team is to continue to work on their flaws. Featuring Bryant, the NBA’s third-leading scorer at 27.1 points per, offense hasn’t been an issue this season in L.A. but shoring up the league’s sixth-worst defense seems to be a glaring priority.
“We have to focus on the things we need to get better at, which is our defense,” Bryant said. “Making sure we shore that up. We play pretty good defense in the fourth quarter, but in the first three quarters it’s like a Harlem Globetrotter exhibition.”
A championship run may no longer be in the cards for these Lakers, but with Bryant continuing to steady the ship, Los Angeles isn’t likely to be an easy out come playoff time. Continuing to try to peak at the right time heading into the postseason is key and, with Bryant, the Lakers at least have a puncher’s chance in a seven-game series against any team in the West.