Kobe Bryant senses change in pecking order for Gasol, Bynum
Moments after attacking the basket, Kobe Bryant drew a double team and saw something out of the corner of his eye.
Pau Gasol just cut toward the right elbow and found himself wide open. The 18,997 at Staples Center may have seen this sequence countless times, but the execution still proved just as captivating. Bryant kicked the ball out and toward the elbow. Gasol caught it. He squared up. Gasol then sank the mid-range jumper.
That play in the Lakers' 97-90 victory Friday over the Golden State Warriors provided a Kodak moment for multiple reasons.
It gave the Lakers a 91-82 lead with 2:28 left and secured what Lakers Coach Mike Brown described as an "ugly" win. Bryant and Gasol hugged each other at mid-court, leading the Lakers forward later to say, "It's good to have that connection with Kobe." More importantly, the play at least brought to Bryant's mind how Gasol has to fit in with the offense when center Andrew Bynum has literally taken away his touches since returning to the lineup for the last four games.
"Pau has to shoot it," Bryant said. "He's not a scorer by nature. That's been the biggest thing with Andrew's development. Andrew is thirsty to score. That takes a lot of pressure off of Pau. But when Pau has shots, he has to shoot them."
In other words, Bryant just redefined the pecking order only two years after famously saying, "I eat first, and Pau eats second." But with Bynum clearly topping Gasol in points (22.3, 17.5) and rebounds (15.8, 7.75) in the first four games since returning from his suspension, it's hard not to wonder if Bryant sees that pecking order evolving.
"It seems like it's changing a little bit," Bryant conceded. "Andrew is thirsty to score. He can score. He has more of a scorer's mentality so we'll take advantage of that."
For starters, Gasol recalled giving pointers to Bynum when his game-wide struggles in fighting double teams ultimately led to a nine-point effort on three of nine shooting.
"If I'm going to do what I've been doing," Bynum said, "I have to get used to getting the double team on the catch and work on quicker moves."
But the key question doesn't point to will. It points to ability. Even if Bryant touts Bynum as a "quick learner," and Bynum vowed to work out Saturday morning to rectify his three of eight clip from the charity stripe, there's several areas that suggest fighting double teams alone could take time. Brown wanted to conduct practices that involve Bynum facing double teams in practice. The compacted schedule doesn't suit them and Bynum's legs won't let him. So in the short term, all Bynum can do is make hustle plays, such as grabbing 16 rebounds like he did against Golden State.
And that's where Gasol comes into play.
His points-per-game average might have dropped because of Bynum's increased touches. But Gasol's field-goal percentage (65.2%) is still superior. And despite a three of nine clip in the first half, Gasol scored 17 points on eight of 15 shooting for one simple reason. His always-dependable mid-range jumper became a whole lot easier to make as Golden State spread the floor to nullify Bynum's presence.
"I'm comfortable in that range because I can knock it down consistently," Gasol said. "Obviously I'm always a player who likes to mix it up and be versatile and attack from different angles. That gives the defense a few more problems."
But will it give the Lakers more problems? As much as Gasol emphasizes balance, Bryant's 39-point performance on 13 of 28 shooting shows he's looking to score more than facilitate, even with a torn ligament in his right wrist. While Matt Barnes' 16 points on seven of nine shooting provided another option, the Lakers three of 11 effort from three-point range still reveals most of the production hinges on how Bryant, Gasol and Bynum share the cake.
"It's natural," Bryant said. "You got to be who you are."
It remains to be seen whether that approach will be good enough.
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