Lakers hope to channel off-court drama into a motivating force
Standing by his locker, Kobe Bryant engaged in something he rarely does.
He had fun with the media.
A devastating loss to Memphis carried all the same problematic characteristics in poor offensive execution, defensive lapses and shoddy effort. It was followed by the same endless questions about the Lakers' current state of being. But instead of sticking to the script, Bryant made an in-game adjustment.
He had spent the previous week finding endless ways to challenge the team, ranging from publicly criticizing them after a Miami loss, carrying the team albeit with negative results against San Antonio and then just having fun against New Orleans. The latter approach worked, except the effort proved unsustaining as he carried the team to victory against Philadelphia but then couldn't jolt them enough against Memphis. So Bryant asked for help.
"That's the role that you guys [the press] play in this thing," Bryant said when asked what can motivate the Lakers. "You guys write doom-and-gloom stories. I think that actually builds up a lot of tension. Most of the guys don't read them, but you can feel the energy from the crowd when you go out there, how concerned everybody is, so that does put a lot of pressure on us."
Well, Bryant received his wish.
Various reports surfaced that kept the media surely occupied enough before what became a Lakers' 108-83 victory Tuesday over the Detroit Pistons.
Those reports include the following: Forward Ron Artest confronted Coach Phil Jackson, expressing frustration of Jackson's public zinging regarding Artest's performances and goofy antics, with Jackson confirming most of the story and Artest remaining mum about the details. Several Lakers arrived late or missed Sunday's shoot-around completely, with forward Pau Gasol admitting afterwards he was one of them. There was Jackson's misconstrued quote that suggested Bryant "screwed up the game" against Memphis by scoring 17 third-quarter points, a charge both later said was accurate and appropriate. And then, of course, there was a shot delivered from Mavericks owner Mark Cuban toward Jackson for being the "boy toy" of Lakers executive vice president and girlfriend Jeanie Buss after Jackson speculated that Caron Butler's season-ending knee injury would severely hurt Dallas' chances to remain competitive in the West, a banter both Jackson and Buss embraced with one-liners of their own.
The stories made for one entertaining pre-game news conference for Jackson, but it surely validated charges expressed by Jackson and Bryant that off-court distractions have surrounded the Lakers for the past month. With all these stories as a backdrop, Bryant said he addressed his teammates before walking on the court about using this as a teachable moment.
"Listen to how everybody talks to you. Embrace this," Bryant recalled saying. "This is L.A. It comes with the territory of being back-to-back champs. You have to deal with it and you have to embrace it and you have to use it as fuel and motivation, because what matters the most are the people that are in this huddle right here. If we stay focused on that, we'll be fine."
There are already suggestions, one from The Times' T.J. Simers, that contends Bryant's fingerprints are all over the Artest story, considering it came from Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, a Bryant confidant who recently had dinner with the Lakers star. Regardless of whether that's the case or not, the verdict is still out on whether the Lakers will successfully handle the team's surrounding drama.
Artest neither confirmed or denied the confrontation report to me, saying afterwards, "I don't remember my conversation," though he had revealed his hurt feelings to The Times' Bill Plaschke. But Jackson filled in the details, saying the confrontation wasn't loud and wasn't unusual of what might happen during a practice. "Ron came in and apologized, not only to me but in front of the whole team for what he said was a distraction at practice," Jackson said. "That was his own desire to do that. I didn't solicit it from him." Added Gasol: "Ron felt like he had to apologize for something. And he did, and it was welcome."
The Lakers for one game properly channeled that energy, resulting in the team featuring a near Bryant triple-double in 17 points, eight assists and seven rebounds, which made up for his six of 18 shooting clip; inside production from Andrew Bynum (13 points on six of six shooting and seven rebounds), Gasol (21 points on seven of 11 shooting and seven rebounds) and Lamar Odom (16 points on six of 12 shooting and nine rebounds) and timely deflections from Derek Fisher and Artest himself.
But as far as whether the Lakers' dirty laundry becoming public will be a good thing for the team? It's too early to say.
"This is part of the business," Gasol said. "We understand that. It also makes you tougher and it also makes you grow."
But Gasol's the same person who has acknowledged feeling frustrated at times when Jackson would zing him in public, most notably when the coach poked fun at his strained left hamstring injury last season that sidelined him for the first 11 games. Jackson joked about Gasol's timetable, once telling reporters that he wouldn't return until Christmas and then insisted Gasol's injury pointed to his role in filming a "CSI" episode.
"He was joking around with it a little too much," Gasol said. "To me, I'm unhappy when I'm not playing and I'm not helping my team. It wasn't a time to joke around with it."
Artest isn't in a joking mood either. With praise thrown his way after Jackson said his play "broke the game open" in the third quarter, Artest still seemed in a stoic mood. "It was hard to take too many compliments right now," he said. "It's hard to feel good about anything right now."
That's because Artest and Jackson planned to talk after the game or sometime Wednesday before the Lakers' game against Phoenix regarding the confrontation in practice.
"I know he's disappointed the word got out, however it leaked out because we have closed practices at that time," Jackson said. "Somebody obviously said something and he feels probably betrayed by that too."
But with Jackson joking that the NBA invites teams to "manufacture controversy" because of its media-friendly policies including practice, pre-game and post-game availability, he drove the point home to the players that handling it properly shows the true markings of a professional.
Take Bryant's response after Jackson said the following after the Lakers' loss to Memphis: "We get behind early in the third quarter on some stupid plays, poor passing and poor transition defense. Kobe has to screw up the game and start energizing the team by going one-on-one. It takes the rest of the guys out. As a consequence, that didn't bring us back in. It did give us a little bit of run. But we couldn't sustain it. We came right back and made the same mistakes again."
Bryant responded by laying out the groundwork in what the Lakers currently face right now.
"I've been around Phil for as many years as I have, we all understand that he likes coaching publicly," Bryant said. "I think it's important for the new guys to understand that -- Ron, Pau, guys have issues with that. You see myself, you see Fish, we understand that's how he coaches. It's fine. Let him do his job and you go about your business. But he was right. I totally broke the offense. But I did it intentionally because we needed to get something started. We were doing it and it wasn't working. I tried to kick-start it. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. But that's my responsibility. When it works out, great. When it doesn't, take the criticism for it but I have thick-enough skin to be able to do that."
That argument also points to the Lakers needing thick enough skin to handle any scrutiny whether it comes from Jackson, Bryant or unnamed sources. These stories wouldn't have gotten leaked had Gasol arrived to the shoot-around on time and Artest didn't remain lost on offense and stretched thin with his efforts in supporting mental-health charities. After all, Bryant argued: "It's L.A. That [stuff] always comes out."
And this time it was exactly what Bryant wanted, a wish that remains unclear whether it will have fruitful or negative consequences.
-- Mark Medina
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