Kobe's confident in Lakers: 'We will make the playoffs'
They could've had Magic Johnson do it, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or maybe Jerry West. Heck, they could've trotted Jack Nicholson out there. This is a franchise, after all, dripping with Big Names. But there was Kobe Bryant, wireless microphone in hand, standing at center court to say goodbye -- on behalf of the Lakers' organization -- to Dr. Jerry Buss before Wednesday night's game against the Celtics at the Staples Center. It was a task that required the face of the franchise, 2013. And so there is no doubt that that face is No. 24.
Bryant did a good job, too. He was obviously emotional, but he kept his poise and told it short and sweet. And so did the "second half" of the NBA season, otherwise known as the final 28 games, begin on a bittersweet note for the desperate Lakers.
They could hardly have gotten a better start, a 113-99 victory over their hated rivals -- ah, how Dr. Jerry appreciates the delicious historical poetry there -- that featured seven players in double figures. Lakers were crashing the boards, diving on the floor, helping each other up and slapping hands, all of it belying the reality of a team that was in serious disarray -- strategic and chemical -- going into the break.
But the ninth-place Lakers -- who are 3½ games behind No. 8 Houston in the Western Conference -- should hold off on issuing the playoff tickets just yet. If you can't beat your hated rivals with a newly printed JB on your chest, an homage to the man who was probably the greatest owner in the history of sports, you might as well mail in the rest of February and all of March. This game was tailor-made for the Lakers, and they tailored it.
I tried to measure it against what I had seen in Los Angeles during a week of reporting a story for this week's Sports Illustrated. (Click here to subscribe to the magazine.) There has been much talk about Dwight Howard, who had a sweet game on Wednesday with 24 points and 12 rebounds in only 30 minutes, but, when you talk Lake Show, you have to first talk Bryant.
And one of the things I noticed about him last week was that he had absolutely not tuned out on the season. Not that he should -- he's making almost $28 million this season -- but he remains outwardly upbeat and confident.
At Lakers practice after a 1-for-8 shooting night against Phoenix on Feb. 12, Bryant stayed on the court for an extra 45 minutes, working on face-up and turnaround jumpers. "I could just reach out and block one of those," a reporter said to Bryant as he neared the baseline where the media horde awaited him.
"I got 30,000 reasons you'd never get close to blocking that s---," Bryant said, referring to a career point total that has grown to 30,949, fifth all time. He smiled quickly and kept moving on, never missing a beat.
Later, as he toweled down and sat for an interview, he was asked if he had a certain shooting routine.
"Absolutely," he said. "I go from spot to spot. Today I quit when I made 400 shots."
"How do you know?" I said.
"What do you mean, How do I know?" Bryant said. "I know because I counted them."
Here are a few outtakes from the interview with Bryant, who, among other things, said the Lakers would make the playoffs and cited a game they lost as part of the reason for his confidence.
SI: In a perfect world, would this offense look like it did with you and Shaq when you won three consecutive titles in the early 2000s?
Bryant: Nah, different personalities, different personnel. With this team, we have to mix it up. But all of it is predicated off of penetration. We just have to read the defense better. We have to find different things every night and make them work. We do have the talent do that.
SI: The pick-and-rolls that [coach Mike] D'Antoni wants you to run and [Steve] Nash wants you to run, but Dwight doesn't seem inclined to ... didn't you do a lot of pick-and-rolling with Shaq?
Bryant: We did. But it was different. We initiated the triangle offense from screen-roll action. It was a way for us to get into our offense.
SI: Against Phoenix, you took only eight shots, none in the first half besides one where you got fouled. Were you trying to prove anything to anybody who has said, or hinted, that he wasn't getting enough touches? [That was a not-so-subtle reference to Howard.]
Bryant: Absolutely not. Even when I gave it up in transition, it was because nobody expected me to pass that ball, right?
SI: You've kind of gone to a facilitator role. Did you think you'd be scoring less in D'Antoni's offense?
Bryant: Actually, it was the opposite. I thought I'd be doing what I do best and what Mike was telling me to do, which is score. But that wasn't going to play to our strengths. We needed another facilitator, another passer. I think that changed the course of our team.
[Note: D'Antoni still gets nervous when Bryant becomes too much of a passer, and will gladly take Kobe's wild beat-the-clock shots that come along with that.]
I also think some of our guys, because they were young, were worried about their scoring opportunities. "I'm not playing as many minutes. I'm not getting enough touches." I think when they saw me sacrifice the way I have, then maybe they thought that they shouldn't concern themselves so much with touches and things like that. "If he's averaging 30 and he's willing to drop, I'm willing to sacrifice, too." That was the more important message.
SI: Dwight hasn't been the happiest of campers. How about your rep for being tough on teammates? Is that part of it?
Bryant: Look, I talk to him all the time. In his ear all the time, not so much now but early on. Pushing him quite a bit. That's just how I am.
[The talk turned to Bryant's days in Italy, where he grew up from ages 6 to 13. Among the players he idolized was D'Antoni, then a star in the Italian League.]
Bryant: Sure, Mike was a top guard over there and I remember him well. Maybe me following him has been a little overblown, but I liked his game. I feel fortunate that I was in Italy when AAU basketball [got big] over here. They stopped teaching kids fundamentals in the United States, but that didn't affect me. Over there, it wasn't about competition and traveling around and being a big deal; it was about fundamentals, footwork, spacing, back cuts -- all of those things. When I came back it was about acclimating myself to the competition, but I had all the fundamentals they didn't have. Look at Pau Gasol. Same thing. Look at all the skills he has compared to the guys who grew up playing AAU ball.
SI: Can you get this done? And is it hard that after winning five championships you're battling to make the playoffs?
Bryant: It's not a question of if we make the playoffs. We will. And when we get there, I have no fear of anyone -- Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver ... whoever. I have zero nervousness about that.
SI: OK, that's you, who has never been known for lack of confidence.
Bryant: But I'm not talking about just me. Us as a group. We will make the playoffs. And we will compete. And part of the reason I have that confidence is the Miami game [a 107-97 loss in Miami on Feb. 10]. We had control of the game. That was no fluke. We were playing very, very well. We were reading the defense, making the extra pass. OK, they have two great players [LeBron James and Dwayne Wade] who scored eight straight buckets and took control of the game. But we were right there. We can do it.
The subtext of the conversation with Bryant -- almost any conversation involving the Lakers these days -- was about the rift between him and Howard. It is not a "rumored rift" or an "alleged rift." It's a rift. It's absolutely reparable, but it absolutely exists. One anecdote might help explain it.
As I stood courtside at Staples Center in Los Angeles with an NBA assistant coach last week, the subject of Howard came up. He knew I had been working on a story about the Lakers so he asked me: "What's going on with Dwight?"
"Well, it's complicated," I said. "Dwight's just ... I mean, I don't know him personally that well, but when I watch him ... it's just ... I see him the locker room and ..."
"Let me say it for you," the coach said. "Dwight's a clown."
"And that is a problem," I added, "because Kobe doesn't do clown real well."
Bryant and Howard have advanced along parallel tracks in their respective careers. Their résumés, their styles, their essences have never diverged. Howard, 27, seized our attention with his prodigious physical gifts but just as much with his wide smile, friendly manner and outsized "Superman" act. Kobe, 34, seized our attention with his Hall of Fame game, built both on athleticism and fundamentals, and his sometimes surly, arrogant nature. Howard became a star partly because we liked his demeanor, and Kobe became a star in spite of himself. Howard is "friendly" and "approachable," while Bryant is "arrogant" and "off-putting." It's more complicated than that, but those are the broad strokes.
But the thing about Bryant? He has endured. He hasn't changed all that much. He rarely apologizes or goes all smiley-face. He never goes clown. And that kind of attitude comes with a public-relations price.
He and Howard don't have to become hangout buddies over the rest of the season. That rarely happens with Kobe and his teammates anyway, and it is sure as heck is not going to happen now. But perhaps all the talk will spur action. The screens that Howard sets will have some oomph to them, as they did on Wednesday. Bryant, and, just as importantly, Nash, will trust Howard to make a play on the blocks. Perhaps the childish smile-to-the-press or mope-to-the-press act that Howard goes into far too often will be curtailed, as might Bryant's pointed barbs at Howard, who, according to general manager Mitch Kupchak, is the cornerstone piece of the Lakers' future.
Players don't have to love each other. But what they must do is put aside differences and trust each other on the court.
Wednesday was a good start for the playoff push. But, with Houston's comeback victory over Oklahoma City, the dismembering of the Celtics also amounted to a running-in-place W. There is much work ahead, many questions remaining, and no doubt much drama still to be played out.
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