Kobe chooses balance over points as Lakers take down LeBron, Heat
LOS ANGELES -- The week that was provided the perfect setup for a Kobe Bryant special, one of those vintage performances that serve as a guilty pleasure for anyone who knows how this game needs to be played.
Miami's Dwyane Wade had offered the extra motivation with his nose-breaking, concussion-causing, hack-a-Kobe move in the All-Star Game that was just the sort of thing that typically inspires the Lakers' star to take on the basketball universe by himself. The 50th anniversary of Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game offered a fitting historical context for another one-man show, with Bryant and the rest of us reliving his 81-point game in 2006 that -- with all due disrespect to Smush Parker and Chris Mihm -- said everything about the Lakers' state of affairs at that time.
But a crucial thing happened on the way to the Lakers' 93-83 win over the Heat on Sunday. Bryant, who scored 18 first-quarter points and looked determined to spend the afternoon exacting personal revenge, remembered the plan that it's time to put in place.
A need for balance, for the veteran core to help their new defensive-minded coach, Mike Brown, find his way on that end by leading the way. A need for chemistry, creativity, always with an eye on the playoff picture rather than the Hall of Fame-bound image that Bryant sees in the mirror every morning.
Over the final three quarters, Bryant scored 15 points and took just 13 shots, helping slow Wade as he managed just 16 points (on 7-of-17 shooting) and five turnovers before fouling out midway through the fourth quarter. The overhyped build-up to the Bryant-Wade rematch turned out to be a silly subplot, although Wade -- ironically enough -- reported being hit in the head in the third quarter and never feeling the same from that point on.
Meanwhile, the contributions that the Lakers have so badly needed this season came from all around. Metta World Peace scored an opportunistic 17 points while playing the sort of defense we thought we'd never see from him again on LeBron James (25 points, 12-of-26 shooting). A brutish Andrew Bynum added 16 points, 13 rebounds and four blocked shots in a dominating defensive outing. There were others, too, and that was precisely the point that will matter so much in the playoffs.
"Balance wins in this league," said Miami forward and longtime Bryant adversary Shane Battier. "All the championships they've won here, they've had balance. Kobe knows that. He's had to do a lot of offensive lifting here early in the season, but he knows that Bynum and [Pau] Gasol have to play well for them to play well in the playoffs."
There's an asterisk next to this one because of the absence of Chris Bosh, the Heat forward who has yet to return to the team after attending his grandmother's funeral Saturday. But the Lakers won for the eighth time in 10 tries nonetheless, and the signs that they're resolving the problems that were holding them back could be a scary sign for the rest of the league.
"People should take them very seriously," Battier made clear.
Especially if this brand of basketball continues.
As entertaining as Bryant's first half of his season was -- this whole idea that a 33-year-old with surgically-repaired knees could lead the league in scoring -- it was never going to last in the long term. Bryant was taking too many shots, ostracizing too much of the team's talent.
Anyone who listened to Bynum during the All-Star break could sense the internal conflict, with the young star telling anyone who asked about the problems that ailed his team.
"New sets, new actions, new plays," he said when asked what needed to be changed about the Lakers' struggling offense.
As it turns out, Bynum didn't only chat with the media about what ailed his team. Bryant said the two discussed the topic during the break as well.
"[We talked about] our identity, and what we want to do," Bryant said.
To be fair, this is hardly all about Bryant. Brown, who was so often criticized for letting James run the roost during their time together in Cleveland, has leaned harder on Bryant than even his bosses could have expected or perhaps wanted. His is a daunting task, following in the footsteps of Phil Jackson while being asked to manage one of professional sports' most competitive personalities in Bryant. Yet all involved say the coaching staff and players are starting to click like never before.
"It's him understanding...the group that you have," Bryant explained. "In the years that we [players] have playing together, sometimes the best thing to do, the best coaching job to do, is to take your hands off a little bit.
"[It's] him kind of loosening his grip a little, which is hard for a coach to do. It's easy for a Phil Jackson to do, but it's hard for him in this situation to do that, so it takes a lot of trust on his part."
Thus, Brown is calling fewer plays and allowing more widespread freedom, mindful of the fact that frustrations about his style were rising not too long ago.
"We're trying to do this thing right now, and I think [Brown] is doing a great job of learning who we are, kind of letting us figure out things for ourselves more," Lakers point guard Derek Fisher said. "And then we're doing a better job of relaxing, trusting his judgment in terms of when there are plays called and things that he wants us to do."
The execution, Brown said, is improving.
"I feel like I can count on those guys," Brown said. "There's a comfort level that I think I have with this team, and I think this team has a comfort level with me now. I think ... we can grow and still get better.
"Our in-the-game offensive execution isn't the greatest yet, but it's been good enough to help us win games because our defense -- knock on wood -- has been good. I trust everybody on the floor to go play their game."
Trust, as no one knows better than Bryant, can be hard to come by.