There are certain things we're pretty much guaranteed to see Wednesday in Game 5 of the Lakers-Nuggets series. They include:
• Kobe Bryant scowling after a foul call.
• Kobe Bryant scowling while on the bench.
• Kobe Bryant scowling when a teammate takes a bad shot.
• Kobe Bryant trying not to scowl when a teammate takes a good shot, because, you know, in his mind Kobe probably had a better one.
One inclined to look for a theme might conclude that Bryant is angry, that he is sour. And with good reason. This was supposed to be his postseason. At least until the Finals, when he would share custody with LeBron James. Then, those annoying Rockets extended the Lakers to seven games, a development made extra special annoying because Shane Battier spent the better part of the series palming Kobe's face.
And now, in the conference finals, the Lakers look alternately gassed, slow and tentative. With the exception of Bryant and Pau Gasol, they have no steady performers. Even Derek Fisher, who for years came out of hibernation every spring and transformed from short role player to Postseason Clutch Guy, has been a disappointment. It's hard to blame Bryant for being upset. Wouldn't you be? The danger for the Lakers, though, is that Bryant becomes too ticked off and puts on the blinders.
As Henry Abbott nicely chronicled over on TrueHoop, after checking back into Game 4 at the 6:43 mark in the fourth quarter, Bryant passed the ball a grand total of one time for the remainder of the game. Of course, other than Gasol -- who is shooting 62.5 percent in the series and deserves more touches -- there was no one Bryant should have been passing to. Remember that 13-game stretch back in February when Lamar Odom averaged 16.4 points and 13.4 rebounds, often dominating games? Don't worry, nobody else does either right now.
If the Lakers go on to win this series -- and we still have to consider them the favorites -- it will be because Bryant becomes less involved, not more so. He spent all season building up his teammates. He played fewer minutes (36 per game, the fewest since his second year in the league). He kept down his shot attempts. He was den mother to the young guys on the team, or, at least, wasn't the abrasive Kobe, and he publicly credited Gasol and pumped up Trevor Ariza. It's not his fault his teammates are struggling now. But then again, it is still his responsibility to get them going again.
Playing at Staples Center will help. Home games boost young, emotional, athletic players, and the Lakers and Nuggets are both deep in those categories. Los Angeles should benefit from the anti-Birdman effect alone. So far in this series, Chris Andersen's been a non-factor in L.A and a cult-hero-slash-figment-of-the-imagination in Denver. This is not an aberration; during the regular season, he averaged more than a rebound more (6.8 to 5.6) and nearly twice as many blocked shots (3.1 to 1.8) when playing at the Pepsi Center. There may be no player in the league who feeds off the home crowd (or inspires it) as effectively.
Now Bryant just needs his birdmen to do the same. He needs Sasha Vujacic to shoot with confidence. He needs Andrew Bynum to play post defense. He needs Shannon Brown to be the one catapulting to block shots off the backboard (rather than the other way around, as happened when Andersen volleyballed Brown's layup in Game 4). And, strangely enough, he probably needs to lighten up a bit. Scowls telegraph a seriousness of purpose, and there is a place for them. But a smile, deployed as Michael Jordan used to do, is a display of something even more powerful: confidence. Not just in yourself, but in your team.