Before ripping into his team for playing like a bunch of stiffs with no energy, Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni openly praised Kobe Bryant.
The contrast in the Lakers’ 113-97 loss Wednesday to the Sacramento Kings couldn’t have been greater. Bryant posted a team-high 38 points on 11 of 20 shooting, while Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard scored a combined 15 points on 14 field-goal attempts.
“Kobe was just unbelievable,” D’Antoni said. “I told the guys the guy is almost 50 years old, we can’t rely on that stuff. We have to come out and play.”
That didn’t happen.
D’Antoni kept imploring the Lakers to run. Lacking much energy, the Lakers couldn’t. So Bryant, who has kept in peak conditioning this summer in the 2012 London Olympics, pressed the attack.
Sure, there were moments where Howard winced when Bryant shot. But this game was hardly one of those where Bryant’s scoring came at the expense of a balanced offense. Bryant took over because Gasol couldn’t hit anything (went three of 10 from the field), while Howard’s four field goal attempts reflected a lack of aggressiveness. With Steve Nash out because of a fractured left leg, Bryant also shared ball handling duties with second-year guard Darius Morris.
Bryant looks like a younger version of himself, the 34-year-old averaging a league-leading 27.3 points per game at a 53.1 percent clip. That’s a far improvement from when he shot 43 percent from the field last season, his lowest mark since his second year in the NBA. Meanwhile, Bryant’s also averaging 5.3 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game.
“I can keep it up all year. The game is pretty easy for me, ” said Bryant, who’s playing 36.8 minutes per contest. “The game is pretty easy for me. I’m not working too hard, to be honest with you. The shots that I made were all jumpers. It didn’t take a lot of energy to knock those jumpers down. Bringing the ball up and having me kind of initiate the offense and score and stuff like that, it’s making me work a little more than I will when Gatsby gets back.
“When Gatsby gets back, I don’t have to do that. The game’s going to become even more easy for me.”
That’s Bryant’s nickname for Nash who will be sidelined at least until Monday. Nash hasn’t played since Portland guard Damian Lillard accidentally collided into him on Oct. 31.
So much for all the worry about Bryant’s strained right foot and right ankle when he revealed on his Facebook page Wednesday it’s “still throbbing.” Afterwards, Bryant said, “I had to ice it down a little bit, but I’m all right.”
Still, the Lakers clearly lacked enough energy and production that Bryant carried an unfair burden. When I asked him about that issue, Bryant downplayed it before suggesting the bench could do a better job feeding Howard in the post instead of running pick-and-roll sets. Moments earlier, though, Lakers forward Metta World Peace sounded on point.
“Kobe had to work a lot, but the other players didn’t have to work much,” World Peace said. “We have to make sure everybody is working on the opposing team so we can utilize everybody .. We have to take it upon ourselves to make sure we stay involved in the game and keep the energy up.”
Bryant surely did that. Even if D’Antoni saw it plenty of times when he coached Phoenix, it’s taken away from feeling astonished at how the Lakers’ star still replicates such performances.
“Right now he’s playing the best I’ve ever seen him play or as good as he’s ever played,” D’Antoni said of Bryant. “It better not change.”
As D’Antoni reminded them afterwards, though, Bryant’s teammates will need to change.
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