MINNEAPOLIS – For 17 years, Kobe Bryant has been a supremely confident, ultra-aggressive offensive force who believed that the more he scores, the better the odds the Los Angeles Lakers win.
Even by his standards, Bryant was on a blistering run to start this season. He averaged just over 22 field goal attempts, right up there with the highest averages of his career. He took 31 shots in a loss to Houston, 41 in a win over Golden State and 32 in a loss at Toronto.
Off to a 17-25 start, and with the playoffs slipping away, Kobe has revamped his game. He’s channeling more Magic than Michael now, becoming the Lakers’ chief playmaker to jumpstart the struggling team. After posting double-digit assists just once in his first 42 games, Bryant is averaging 11.2 assists over the last five, a stretch that has produced four victories to offer some hope that all is not lost.
“It feels good,” Bryant said Friday, when the Lakers beat the Timberwolves. “You’re just trying to do whatever it takes to win. Trying to figure things out, even if you’re adjusting your game as dramatically as I have, it’s just doing whatever it takes to get your team to win.”
Passing hasn’t exactly been absent from Bryant’s game over the years. It just hasn’t been at the forefront of his approach to breaking a team down. He’s always thought of himself as the best one-on-one player in the world, and that mentality has fueled a get-out-of-my-way approach that has helped him fly up the career scoring chart.
He’s averaged a healthy 4.7 assists for his career and was right at that number through the first 42 games this season. Bryant has more career assists than any of the five players who have scored at least 30,000 points. But he has completely changed his role in the last two weeks.
In the four-game losing streak that preceded the Lakers’ mini-surge, Bryant attempted 25, 32, 22 and 23 shots and dished out a total of 14 assists.
In the last five games, he’s taken 10, 12, 12, 17 (the only loss) and 13 shots and picked up 56 assists.
“I just try to dominate the game through passing and getting to the rim and scoring when the opportunity presents itself,” Bryant said. “There’s many ways to dominate a game.”
For someone as notoriously stubborn as Bryant, it’s quite an eye-opening transformation.
“It’s not the easiest thing in the world to change a mentality,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But he’s definitely trying.”
In the twilight of his career, and with Steve Nash and Dwight Howard not close to the All-NBA players they have been, it’s also been absolutely necessary for the Lakers’ survival. They are 21-26, good for 10th place in the competitive Western Conference.
“It’s different now playing against him than watching him on TV,” Wolves forward Derrick Williams said. “He’s just a deadly weapon. If you leave a little space he’s going to knock down a shot. If you get too close to him, he’s going to hit people with backdoor passes.”
His teammates are feeding off the newfound unselfishness, too. Pau Gasol had struggled for most of the season, but he had 22 points and 12 rebounds against the Timberwolves on Friday night. Antawn Jamison has scored in double figures in four straight games, and Nash is adapting quite well to playing off the ball and knocking down all the open shots that come when Bryant draws so much attention from the defense.
The Timberwolves certainly didn’t have an answer for his new game Friday. In the first quarter, he relentlessly backed down the overmatched Luke Ridnour in the post, drawing double teams from a scrambling Wolves defense. Bryant easily surveyed the scene, kicking to wide open shooters on the perimeter for easy shots. The Lakers hit eight of their first 10 3-point attempts to build a 29-point lead in the second quarter. Bryant said he studied Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson and John Stockton as much as he did Jordan while he was growing up. And whenever he’s asked about Magic – widely considered Bryant’s biggest competition for title of the greatest Laker – he smiles broadly.
“That’s the thing that gets lost as the years go on,” he said. “People forget how good he was and some of the passes he makes. You go back and look at some of that (stuff) he was throwing around out there, it’s outrageous. Some of the things he sees. And me growing up a huge Magic fan, I’m very familiar with that.”
If Bryant can somehow dig these Lakers out of the rubble and take them to another title, it will be the sixth of his career – tying Jordan and moving him past Magic on the ring count.
“We’re trying to find that balance a little bit,” he said. “We’re obviously not reaching our full potential if I go through a full half without really shooting the ball. But at the same time, I think the most important part is to get everybody in rhythm. I can always find my offensive rhythm throughout the game.”
That’s an ongoing conversation with D’Antoni.
“You need to be aggressive and make the right play,” the coach said. “When you take off and they collapse on you, make the pass. If they don’t, then score. I think you need to do it for four quarters. You can’t come into a game and be a facilitator for a quarter, (then say) `OK, now I’m going to be a scorer.”’
Bryant is getting more and more comfortable with each passing game, and all of a sudden these Lakers have new life. Once buried under a pile of injuries and dysfunction, they’re 3½ games behind Houston for the eighth seed and charging. They’re close enough that Bryant is starting to peek at the standings again.
“A little bit now because you kind of want to have in your mind’s eye what’s going on,” he said. “But we’ll catch up.”