The instant the Lakers showed film of Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving, Kobe Bryant immediately interjected.
He made it clear he wanted to defend him for reasons beyond wanting to respond to Irving challenging him this offseason to a game of one-on-one. Bryant also figured the adjustment could help set the example on the mindset the Lakers need to have defensively if they’re ever going to climb out of the bottom of the Western Conference standings.
The Lakers took one small step with their 113-93 victory Sunday over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Bryant set a bigger step by defending Irving and holding him to a modest 15 points on 7 of 15 shooting, something the Lakers say significantly triggered holding the team to 41 percent shooting. When the Lakers (16-21) host the Milwaukee Bucks (19-17) Tuesday at Staples Center, Bryant will likely mix between guarding Monta Eliss and Brandon Jennings.
“He disrupts the whole offense on the ball,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said of Bryant. “He’s done that a couple of games. We’ll continue to milk that one.”
Bryant’s often considered a strong on-ball defender. Despite being named on the NBA’s All-Defensive team nine teams, however Bryant in recent seasons has often sagged at the so-called centerfield position. That’s where Bryant gives shooters space on the perimeter, leaving Bryant the ability to cheat on defense and be open to help if needed. Bryant frequently takes his time running back on defense, often using that time to protest a non-call to an official.
When D’Antoni was asked about Bryant’s offball defense, he hesitated and then smiled,
“He’s good,” D’Antoni said with a wink.
Bryant didn’t speak to reporters following Monday’s practice. After the Lakers’ win over Cleveland, though, Bryant touted what his on-ball defense will provide to a team that ranks 26th in total defense (101.87 points per game).
“I got to get to the frontlines and start to do a better job defensively and play with a lot more energy defensively,” Bryant said. “Hopefully, it trickles down to everybody else.”
With Bryant leading the league in scoring (30 points per game) and fourth in minutes played (38.7), the Lakers hope they lessen his workload so that the added defensive assignments don’t become so burdensome.
“It’s important for us not to put it all on him and have him take on two or three defenders all night,” Lakers guard Steve Nash said. “We have to make easy baskets for each other.”
Regardless, Bryant sounded eager on changing his role. So much that he’s pledged he won’t talk at all about the Lakers’ offense, which ranks fourth overall (103.41 points per game).
“When you’re in these type of situations, there’s a tendency for your ego to get in the way,” Bryant said. “You start thinking about what can I do to help the team. That winds up being counter productive. You have to quiet your ego and think about collectively what we can do as a group.”
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