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Lakers take right approach with Kobe Bryant for European exhibition games

September 30, 2010 |  8:14 pm

So much for the uncertainty.

All week, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson seemed to waver on whether Kobe Bryant would play when the Lakers begin their preseason games, beginning in London on Oct. 4 against the Minnesota Timberwolves and in Spain on Oct. 7 against Regal FC Barcelona. Jackson had thought last week that Bryant's rehabilitation efforts on his right knee following off-season arthroscopic surgery would prove enough to warrant minutes. Then, with Bryant only participating in one full practice this week, Jackson expressed uncertainty on whether he'd suit up for next week's games.

There's still some questions that will have clearer answers leading up to tipoff, such as how many practices Bryant fits in, how much progress he makes and if there's any more discomfort. But Jackson's announcement Thursday that he plans to play Bryant at least in some fashion proves to be the best choice for a pair of preseason games that boast more importance than usual.

"We want him to be out there on the court and play," Jackson said following Thursday's practice in El Segundo. "Whether it's a six- to eight=minute run, or two of them, that's what I'd prefer."

When told of Jackson's plan to play him anywhere between six to 16 minutes each game, Bryant simply said, "That's realistic." Although he considers exhibitions to simply be "practice games," Bryant said he's well aware that European fans will want to see one of the league's best players on the floor.

This plan strikes the perfect balance in putting Bryant's long-term health first while taking into consideration the interests of the sold-out venues. Bryant makes an appearance, dazzles them with moves and then comes out of the game early enough that fatigue and exposure to further injury won't happen.

"It's all about whether I can perform or not and play," Bryant said. "That's with any game. That's why I've always been very adamant about not missing games. People spend their hard-earned money to come watch me play. You want to make sure you get out there and play."

That doesn't mean Bryant's literally dying to play, as you might think. He shook his head no when asked if he's "determined" to play, called preseason contests "practice games" and made it clear because of his skill-set and experience he doesn't really need to practice to get back into a playing rhythm. Bryant seems simply to be accepting his rehabiliation for what it is. If he had it his way, he'd be getting after it in training camp with his old and new teammates. But he also knows the stakes aren't high enough for him to push through at all costs.

As much as Bryant is trying to ensure progress every day, there's a difference between how he's rehabbed now versus during the postseason. It doesn't contradict his hunger and competitive level for the game so much as differing circumstances reveal a different approach toward reaching his ultimate goal in winning his sixth ring. He scratched and clawed any way he could during the postseason, knowing he was merely on his last lap before the finish line. During the preseason, Bryant's still pushing but at an even-keel pace in hopes that he doesn't have to grind things out as he did last season.

The verdict is still out on how long that process will take. Bryant and Jackson gave conflicting accounts on how the swelling in his knee held up in his lone practice Monday night. Bryant said, "I can strengthen up in certain areas," but added that "I haven't had any swelling [in the knee] at all." Jackson, meanwhile, said on Tuesday that Bryant had "a little swelling [in his knee], obviously." No matter which case it is, Bryant should be healthy fairly soon. There's no reason to expedite that process just for the sake of it. At the same time, Bryant can afford some wiggle room just so fans don't walk away disappointed. It's a happy medium that properly serves both parties without any consequences.

--Mark Medina

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