Lakers' Kobe Bryant proves his value on court despite injuries
Aside from the Andrew Bynum-Chris Bosh trade rumors, it's fair to say Kobe Bryant's six-week avulsion fracture to his right index finger has been the most heavily discussed topic among Lakers fans.
Though I haven't gotten a true sense of where exactly the split lies, it seems there's one camp that believes Bryant needs to remain on the floor for, well, rather obvious reasons. He's Mamba and the team needs him out there. Though the Lakers (33-11) head into today's game at Washington having lost seven of their last nine road contests and are 5-5 in their last 10, it would be unfathomable to rest him, according to this camp. Bryant has averaged a team-leading 28.3 points per game, made four game winners -- including one Jan. 13 against Dallas despite fighting back spasms -- and has provided valuable on-court presence.
Then there's the camp that believes Bryant shares a huge responsibility for the Lakers' sputtering record, which has put them behind Cleveland for the NBA's best mark (35-11). After aggravating the fracture to his right index finger Jan. 5 against the Houston Rockets, Bryant has averaged 22.9 points on an 85-of-227 clip (37%) in the following 10 games. The dropoff has pushed Bryant down to No. 4 among the league's scoring leaders behind Cleveland's LeBron James, Denver's Carmelo Anthony and Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant. More importantly for the Lakers, those fans believe those statistics will continue to dip while the losses mount if if Bryant doesn't get the proper rest to heal his finger.
I don't think the main issue involves whether Bryant should sit. It instead involves how Bryant is used on the court. The Lakers' last two games, against New York and Toronto, showed Bryant playing more of a distributing role, adding a new wrinkle in the never-ending debate regarding his playing status. It also proves that his on-court presence is invaluable even with an injured finger.
Though Bryant certainly shouldn't be immune from criticism for his 31 points on 12 of 31 shooting Thursday in a 93-87 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, he rightfully lit into his teammates for their lack of toughness (mainly Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum) for allowing the Cavs' front line of Shaquille O'Neal, Anderson Varejao and J.J. Hickson to muscle them inside.
The next day, against New York, Bryant and Gasol led a fourth-quarter charge, scoring 23 of the team's 31 fourth-quarter points. Bryant's 27 points on eight of 24 shooting showed he still took some unnecessary shots, but his six assists were instrumental in sparking Gasol's 20 points, including 10 in the fourth quarter.
It also provided a blueprint for Bryant to duplicate Sunday against Toronto. He recorded a near triple double with a team-leading 27 points, a career-high 16 rebounds and nine assists. Just as Bryant added some scoring punch, he was also instrumental in the Lakers posting 56 points in the paint. He continued to push for more aggressive play from Gasol, who finished with 22 points. Bryant had an uncanny feel for setting up Bynum inside with well-timed passes, resulting in 21 points.
Just as Bryant appeared on the verge of adapting to a distributing role, he reverted back to some old tendencies. After starting 10 of 18 from the field in the first three quarters against the Raptors, he went only two of seven in the fourth quarter.
I won't question Bryant's last two missed shots. One came with 12 seconds remaining where he had to catch an inbounds pass and immediately shoot a fall-away three-pointer because only three seconds remained on the shot clock. The last miss came with 1.2 seconds left as forward Luke Walton found Bryant for a 38-foot fall-away trey. And then there was one missed shot that eventually resulted in a basket for Bynum, making that particular shot selection a moot point.
But Bryant's other two missed shots could've been avoided. With 5:41 remaining in the game, Bryant had a decent-enough look for a 12-foot leaner after sliding through two defenders. But there was an even better look with a wide-open Shannon Brown in the right corner of the three-point line. With one minute remaining in the game, Bryant took a contested jumper over Hedo Turkoglu instead of going inside to Bynum, who had leverage over Bosh. Not only was Bynum the better option, but there also was no need for Bryant to rush a stop since 11 seconds were left on the shot clock.
Of course, nurturing team balance goes beyond Bryant, who actually put the team in contention to at least win the game against Toronto. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson's decision to sit Bryant until the middle of the fourth quarter against Cleveland and Toronto resulted in the team proving its inability to consistently fill Bryant's void. That's unfortunate for the Lakers considering they had shown glimpses of providing that team-wide continuity.
Despite Bryant's 12 points on four of 21 shooting Jan. 10 against Milwaukee, the Lakers won easily because of Bynum (17 points, career-high 18 rebounds), Shannon Brown (19 points) and Jordan Farmar (17 points). Though Bryant had the game winner against Dallas, it was a team effort that ensured the victory, including Bynum's fourth double double in five games, Lamar Odom's 18 points and 14 boards and Ron Artest's (16 points) and Farmar's 11 bench points. And against Orlando on Jan. 18, Brown and Farmar bailed out Bryant's 11 points on four of 19 shooting.
Bryant has forever tinkered with his splint in hopes it will rectify his shooting woes, but that's not the biggest adjustment he's made in the last two games. That involves elevating his quarterback role, a responsibility Bryant and the team must continually embrace to ensure fluidity (and fewer whacks to the finger would help).
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant wraps a no-look pass around his head as he's surrounded by Raptors defenders in the first half Sunday. Credit: Warren Toda / EPA