SAN ANTONIO – For those wondering how Kobe Bryant would integrate himself with the rest of the Lakers after sliding into the role of coach for the past two weeks, a new question posed itself Friday when Bryant finally suited up and played.
What happened to his team?
Bryant returned looking much like his old self, but the swaggering, rugged, ball-sharing group that had surfaced with their star out with an injured shin was nowhere to be found.
The team that had won five of seven and pummeled the Spurs here 10 days ago without Bryant was smoked in his return, 121-97.
That Bryant scored 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting, and showed little signs of rust or vulnerability was a silver lining that his teammates managed to wrap in a dark cloud.
Though the Lakers, with Bryant and their twin 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, may be a matchup nightmare in the Western Conference, they looked on Friday much the way they looked when being swept out of the playoffs by Dallas last May.
Their defense was abysmal – whether it was being eviscerated in transition or dying by pick-and-roll in the half court with San Antonio shooting 61 percent. They were beaten on the boards, supposedly their area of dominance. And they showed, as they did against Dallas, that their mental makeup is lacking.
Bynum didn’t body slam anybody, as he did J.J. Barea last year, but his body language was no more mature. When the blowout began in earnest in the third quarter, Bynum’s shoulders sagged when Tim Duncan beat him to an entry pass and Bynum ceased to fight for position or hustle back on defense.
And Ramon Sessions, the upgrade at point guard, was overwhelmed by the task of slowing Tony Parker, who had 20 points and 10 assists to Sessions’ five points and one assist.
“San Antonio got us rattled with their physicality,” Lakers coach Mike Brown said. “We did get discouraged, and San Antonio did get us out of our wits a little bit. We have to do a better of trying to stay the course. San Antonio did a terrific job of just continuing to play their game and continuing to attack us.”
The loss narrowed the Lakers’ lead over the Clippers for third place in the Western Conference to a half-game though LA also holds the tie-breaker. The Lakers have two games left: Sunday against Oklahoma City and Thursday at Sacramento. The Clippers play New Orleans on Sunday, then finish at Atlanta and New York.
“There’s no way around it,” Gasol said. “We’ve got to step up to the plate. We’ve got to take it personally. Tonight it would have been a very bad playoff loss. Let’s see what we can do and what we’re made of Sunday.”
If there was a picture of calm afterward, it was Bryant, who sat at his locker with both legs up to his knees in a bucket of ice. The way Bryant spoke, it was almost as if he were still coaching, conducting the post-mortem in a clinical manner.
The Spurs, he said, were outstanding at spacing the floor and hitting their 3-point shots. After Bynum had 30 rebounds in a 14-point Lakers’ win here April 11, he has had five rebounds total in the past two games vs. San Antonio because the Spurs no longer allow him to play near the basket, said Bryant, who noted that the Lakers must improve their ability to adjust on the fly before the playoffs start.
As he did on the court, Bryant slowly rounded into form, reacting with half-serious exasperation to questions about his health.
When he was asked if he would play in the final two regular-season games, Bryant said: “Let’s not make this like a, you know, I’m not on vacation. I was hurt. If I’m healthy, I play.”
A question about why he chose to sit out with this injury when he has played through torn tendons in his finger, fluid in his knee and other assorted ailments was cut off.
“Besides the fact that I can’t walk?” Bryant asked “I couldn’t lift my foot up off the ground. I had a great workout [Wednesday] up in Golden State, where really I pushed it, pushed it hard to see if any of that pain was going to come back because once it comes back, it does not stop. It gets worse.”
It did not take Bryant long to acclimate himself. He lost Kawhi Leonard on the Lakers’ first possession, scored on a layup and was fouled. Though he was content to watch the offense flow through Bynum in the first half, he came out attacking to start the second.
Bryant posted up Leonard and hit a fallaway jumper that pulled the Lakers within 56-54, but he turned the ball over and fouled Danny Green on a fastbreak lay-in. A 3-pointer pulled the Lakers within five, but soon the Spurs went on a 11-0 run and the game was so lopsided Bryant and Bynum spent the entire fourth quarter on the bench.
The game was no such mixed bag for Duncan. He pulled Bynum out to top of the key to either set a pick for Parker or set up for a jumper. Duncan, who turns 36 next week, had 21 points, eight rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocked shots.
“I know he’s a great player and I know he’s got four rings, but man, I didn’t think he could still do that,” Metta World Peace said. “He was great. He looked like the old Tim Duncan.”
Perhaps the Lakers can find some solace there. If the old Tim Duncan can be located, so, too, can the old Kobe Bryant. But with the playoffs at hand, that may not matter if the supporting cast can’t resemble the old Lakers.