Column: Bryant, Lakers need to get swagger back
Kobe Bryant hit his only shot that really mattered, then celebrated by slapping hands with Justin Timberlake. In the closing seconds of a Game 7 playoff win, the stars were aligning in Los Angeles once again, just like old times.
Except this was a first-round playoff series against a seriously less talented opponent. And these aren't anything like old times.
The Lakers used to swagger through the playoffs with an attitude, mostly because Bryant would always seem to find a way to make them win. Now they go to Oklahoma City uncertain and unsure, and even Bryant may not have anything left in his bag of tricks to use against the Thunder.
He got them past the Denver Nuggets by finally getting Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol to play hard. That worked for one night, but the Lakers won't be long for these playoffs if Bryant is forced to babysit his teammates every game.
He was smiling after the win at the Staples Center, happy to see his daughters waiting for him in the hallway afterward. That was in sharp contrast to the game before in Denver, when Bryant played despite flu-like symptoms, only to watch his teammates barely go through the motions.
Asked after that game whether his teammates had the same heart he did on the court, Bryant didn't dance around the subject.
''No,'' he said. ''Of course they didn't.''
Bryant is clearly frustrated with the inconsistent effort he's getting from those around him, though he's hardly alone. First year coach Mike Brown can't seem to figure out how to motivate the team, which trailed Denver in the final quarter Saturday night before rallying to win.
Before the game, Magic Johnson added to the unease surrounding the Lakers by declaring on TV that Brown would be fired if the team lost to the Nuggets. That led to the Lakers issuing an unusual statement that the team is ''fully committed to and supportive of Mike Brown as head coach of the Lakers.''
The Lakers under Johnson used to play by the nickname ''Showtime.'' This group gives Laker fans nothing but nervous time.
The one constant is Bryant, whose will to win is unmatched, even with five NBA championship rings in his collection. At the age of 33 he may have lost half a step on his drives and his shot can be streaky, but he's a fiery leader who's not afraid to get his teammates' attention when needed.
The Lakers will also have Metta World Peace for the whole series. World Peace - the one player Bryant says he doesn't have to worry about playing hard - came back from suspension Saturday to key the Lakers defensively and his assignment will be Thunder star Kevin Durant.
The player once known as Ron Artest missed seven games for a vicious elbow to the head of Oklahoma City's James Harden, the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year. Don't expect peace to break out, though, when they're on the court together.
''I don't shake substitutions' hands,'' World Peace said.
Even with World Peace back, the Lakers are a decided underdog against a young and rested Thunder team that holds both home court advantage and a 2-1 series edge this year. Oddsmakers have made the Thunder 7-point favorites in Monday night's Game 1.
But funny things can happen in the playoffs. That was evident in Game 7 against the Nuggets when Bryant resisted the urge to fight through double teams and try to take the game over. Instead, he passed to open teammates and played lockdown defense in the fourth quarter before hitting a late 3 that secured the win.
''We're used to Kobe taking more shots,'' World Peace said.
Asked how he was able to show restraint, Bryant replied:
''Five championships. It's not very difficult to win games.''
It will get more difficult in Oklahoma City, where the Lakers will try to avoid being ousted in the second round for the second straight year. The Lakers have great size inside with twin 7-footers Bynum and Gasol and they have one of the greatest players ever in the game, but this is a team as maddeningly inconsistent as it was the day the regular season opened.
In the past, that would just mean Bryant would take over by scoring. But he shot only 43 percent his year, and the time when he could win games on his own may be over.
He needs Bynum and Gasol, and he needs World Peace. They won a championship together just two years ago, so the talent is certainly there.
What's been missing has been chemistry and desire, the intangibles that often mean the difference between advancing in the playoffs and going home. To his credit, Bryant has taken it upon himself to instill both in his teammates, but it's a work in progress.
The swagger is still missing. And soon the Lakers may be, too.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg