The clock ticked down, the Lakers trailed and you-know-who had the ball.
Kobe Bryant dribbled to the far perimeter. He squared up. His shot dropped through the basket. And the 18,997 fans at Staples Center cheered ecstatically for Bryant nailing the eventual game-winner in the Lakers’ 88-85 victory Saturday over the New Orleans Hornets.
We’ve seen this play out before, as Bryant’s 26-foot jumper gave the Lakers an 86-85 lead with 21 seconds left. But Bryant’s clenched jaw, the Lakers’ sense of relief and fans’ giddiness over the shot came in a different context. Bryant scored seven points on three-of-21 shooting from the field, missed his first 15 attempts and had gone zero of seven from three-point range before his final, game-winning shot.
“All scripted,” Bryant said with a laugh. “I’m stubborn. That’s probably what it is. If I would’ve missed that shot, everybody would’ve killed me. It’s a two-point game. He could’ve easily thrown the ball to Drew or Pau or something like that.”
Bryant became self-deprecating in regard to his poor shooting. He showed determination about his willingness to shoot. Bryant joked with former Laker and Hornets forward Trevor Ariza about the woes. He remained positive about his insistence the public shouldn’t bet on how well the Lakers do in the postseason.
Meanwhile, Lakers Coach Mike Brown expressed admiration for Bryant having the “will power” to overcome such a bad shooting night. And the fans cheered so loudly, you’d think the Lakers won Game 7 of the NBA Finals instead of a regular-season game against the New Orleans Hornets, the Western Conference’s worst team, complete with an injury-decimated eight-player roster.
Underneath the surface, however, stood a glaring reality that contributed to Bryant’s poor marksmanship.
“Fatigue might have something to do with it,” Bryant said. “But I had good shots in the rhythm of the offense and so forth. None of them went down. At that point, be patient, focus on the last quarter and focus on getting some good shots.”
He logged 38 minutes, which mirrors his regular-season average, the third highest in the NBA. It remains plausible that also contributed to his shooting woes in the last five games, when he’s averaged 23.8 points on 39.4% shooting, a stretch Bryant attributed more to the compacted schedule than his actual minutes. Still, Brown had pledged all season to limit Bryant’s playing time at 33-35 minutes a game.
But as Bryant churned out 40-point performances on four consecutive games and maintained the league’s highest scoring average, Brown found his production too tantalizing to minimize when his reserves lacked consistency. The Lakers (32-20) have 14 games before the NBA playoffs start April 28, yet it sounds as if Brown doesn’t plan to limit Bryant’s minutes anytime soon. He shed doubt on fatigue affecting Bryant despite reporters telling him the Lakers star himself acknowledged it. Brown said the only scenario that would make him comfortable to rest Bryant depended on “the flow of the game.”
And he hardly sounded enthusiastic about following the approach of his mentor, Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, in setting a strict limit on players’ minutes to ensure feeling fresh for the playoffs. Instead, Brown vowed to adopt the same approach he took when he coached Cleveland.
“We felt like we needed to establish something and get some balance with the framework of the team while we were figuring each other out,” Brown said. “We played to win a lot of times and that’s what we’re doing right now. Hopefully I can get his minutes down from what it is throughout the rest of the year. That would be ideal.”
But based on Brown’s resistance to it, so far, who knows if that will happen. That’s why it’s easy to interpret Bryant’s prediction that the team will be “well rested” before the playoffs both as a plea for Brown to better monitor his playing time and to motivate his teammates.
“You figure out ways to work through it,” Bryant said. “I have a great team here and a lot of support. I pushed myself defensively tonight to get after the guys and so sometimes you have to sacrifice the offense and stamina that you have to defend. That’s what we believe will get us through championships.”
Regardless of how that plays out, it remained clear against New Orleans just how fatigue caught up to Bryant. All of his shots came within the context of the offense, ranging from baseline and elbow jumpers to open three-pointers. Bryant fired most of his shots in direct line with the basket, but they fell short. And there appeared nothing he could do to snap out of it. That’s why it was both amusing and unsettling when Bryant made his first field goal with 7:30 left in the fourth quarter to cut the Hornets’ lead to 75-67. Bryant caught a pass from Pau Gasol from the left elbow, nailed a 17-foot jumper and prompted everyone at Staples Center to go berserk as if the Black Mamba had never made a shot in his life. Converting a contested layup that reduced the Hornets’ lead to 77-69 with 6:24 left created a similar reaction, while Bryant pumped his fist with delight. And there was sure a sense of irony when “M-V-P” chants reigned over Staples Center as he hit one of two free throws to slice the gap to 79-76 with 4:24 left.
“I’ve seen a lot of people run away from those type of situations,” Bryant said, and sure, feel free to say LeBron James. “When the ball is not going and you’re 0 of 15, it’s a steep hill.”
What remains a steeper hill involves when, or if, Bryant will rest. The Lakers play five games next week, including two sets of back-to-back games. The Lakers then have nine more games in 18 days, including one set of back-to-back games. Their only stretch of multiple days off is between their April 22 game against Oklahoma City and their season finale against Sacramento on April 26. Bryant might have adjusted in time Saturday to barely scrape by against the West’s worst team. He won’t have that luxury against better clubs.
“I’m going to be fine,” Bryant said. “I’ll be OK. I’ll figure it out and always have.”