Kobe Bryant's subdued attitude reveals his increased determination to overcome injuries
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant stood surrounded by a pack of reporters with cameras, tape recorders and questions. He stared back offering a subdued demeanor, quiet and clipped answers and barely let out a smile. The only time he let one out was when he was asked about D.J. Mbenga's orange-tinted glasses after the reserve center's recent eye surgery, before offering a simple "They're nice" response.
Usually there's nothing to read into these types of sessions, other than that Bryant doesn't like interviews and we have an endless amount of questions. But it was hard not to notice he carried the same aura as he did days leading up to the 2009 NBA Finals. He didn't buy into that notion when a reporter said it seemed he had his game face on, saying that he's "just moody today." But you can judge for yourself. The video below offers nothing really of substance, and many of his answers are mumbled and barely audible, and it's not because of my camera. But it clearly showcases his stoic demeanor.
Of course, it's unfair to try to discern someone's personality and vibe based only on how he or she interacts with reporters. But Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said he noticed Bryant having a similar personality when he saw him Monday in the training room and when the team broke down film of the Lakers' 87-79 Game 1 victory Sunday over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jackson found Bryant so unapproachable that "I didn't initiate a conversation but once with him, and that's it."
Bryant didn't offer much of an explanation for his demeanor, and neither did his teammates, most notably Lakers forward Ron Artest, who believes Bryant has had the same focused approach throughout the season. Though Jackson didn't share much on what's making Bryant tick these days, he's seen this mood plenty of times after a poor performance or a loss.
If Jackson's contention is correct, it doesn't take much to connect the dots. Bryant scored 21 points on six for 19 shooting against Oklahoma City in his first game since missing four of the previous five contests. In the three games before his injury, Bryant shot only 21 for 70 from the field (30%). Yet, Jackson noted Bryant "isn't going to offer any excuses," observing that Bryant came in early Monday to work on shooting. Though Bryant acknowledged Sunday that his fractured right index finger bothered him, he struck a different tone after practice Monday, saying "I'm fine" when asked how his body was feeling, which also includes his sprained left ankle and sore right knee.
That left others to make excuses for him. Jackson cited Bryant's lack of elevation. Lakers guard Derek Fisher argued Bryant just needs to play more games before returning to full form. And forward Lamar Odom remained amused by it all, saying no one should worry about Bryant's shooting numbers. I share Odom's perspective that the Lakers will be fine, but for different reasons.
Although there's plenty of indisputable evidence that shows injuries and his age (31) have limited Bryant, relatively speaking, he still played with full speed and aggressiveness against Oklahoma City. He commanded double teams. He worked the offense. And he would've had more than three assists had Artest and Fisher shot better than a combined seven for 23 from the field. So even though Bryant's shooting performance left a lot to be desired, he was largely responsible for why the offense moved effectively, with that attention helping Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum combine for 32 points mostly inside. The data below, courtesy of Statsheet.com, charts each player's impact in the Lakers' Game 1 victory over the Thunder, with Bryant's stats colored blue on the immediate left.
This role isn't anything new for Bryant. After reacting poorly in January to his fractured index finger by shooting more and making less, he started directing the offense in February and March, resulting in a better post presence inside. But in fairness to Bryant, he should be given a few more games to build a rhythm rather than to immediately pigeonhole him as a facilitator. Case in point, it took him three games to build his offensive rhythm after missing five contests this season because of a sprained left ankle.
If there's anything most defining about Bryant's play this season, it's that he's mostly taken an even-handed approach in refusing to allow his injuries to deter him while also looking for other ways to remain a dominating force in the game. It's why he's continued to tinker with the splint on his index finger to ensure maximum comfort and effectiveness. It's why he consulted with former Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon so he could have a more effective post game. And it explains why he remained flexible with his role, sometimes moving to the forward spot during Bynum's 13-game absence because of a strained left Achilles' tendon.
Bryant has come to a crossroads, and it's something Jackson acknowledged to the media Monday after practice. Jackson downplayed a reporter's assessment that Bryant is shooting too many shots, but he also said that given Bryant's decreased elevation, he'll have to be selective with what are normally considered good shots. As I noted in an earlier post, there were a few instances in Game 1 where Bryant encountered that challenge. But for now, Bryant's teammates showed plenty of signs of support.
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