As he ran back up the court, Kobe Bryant repeatedly turned his head to the sidelines.
Normally, Bryant remains focused on nothing more than just the game. That makes up his DNA, after all, as an insatiably competitive player that demands mere perfection. This time, the circumstances changed.
Former Lakers coach Phil Jackson attended the game to speak on behalf of Shaquille O’Neal during his jersey retirement ceremony, and the Black Mamba naturally wanted to impress the man who helped him win five NBA championships.
“I tried to make sure I was on my p’s and q’s,” Bryant said. “If I didn’t, I knew I’d get a long text from him and ask me what the hell I was doing out there. I made sure I was as sharp as possible. It’s hard to miss someone who’s 6’10”, white hair and white mustache. You don’t see many guys walking around.”
Bryant easily passed the test, posting his 19th career triple double with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in 47 minutes in the Lakers’ 101-81 victory Tuesday over the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center. Jackson displayed the same subtle grin as he watched the game for the first three quarters, reacting neither negatively nor positively anytime Bryant made an impressive play. But Jackson wasted no time taking to Twitter to sing Bryant’s praises.
Kobe almost pitched a perfect game tonite…I know you did it for us, Mamba-Shaq and Lakers Nation-just spectacular.
— Phil Jackson (@PhilJackson11) April 3, 2013
Keep in mind, Bryant did all this despite nursing a bone spur in his left foot and a sprained left ankle. Bryant also has played 78 minutes for the past two games.
“I feel sore right now,” Bryant said, as his legs sat in a bucket of ice water in front of his locker. “My back is a little sore and my hamstrings are a little sore.
But Bryant showed extra willingness to compromise his body for obvious reasons.
The Utah Jazz (39-36) holds the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference over the Lakers (39-36) with seven games remaining because of a regular-season tie breaker. The Lakers’ win over the Mavericks (36-38) also gave them a 2 1/2 game lead for ninth place.
“We understand the significance of this stretch,” Bryant said. “It’s been a very tough year for us. We’re thrilled to be in a position where we can somewhat control our own destiny.Guys are putting the game first, above all else.”
Bryant, of course, has always done that. But he took an extra step against Dallas.
With Steve Nash out for the second consecutive game because of a strained right hamstring and right hip spasm, Bryant played the facilitating role. While also ensuring enough touches for Dwight Howard (24 points), Earl Clark (17 points) Pau Gasol (14 points) and Steve Blake (11 points), Bryant still kept his scoring touch. Bryant threw down two thunderous dunks in the lane. He attacked the basket enough to go 7 of 8 from the free throw line. Before exiting the game in the final minute, Bryant swept through the lane and converted on a baby hook shot that would make Kareem Abdul-Jabbar proud.
“I had a lot of them like this,” said Bryant, who fell just short of a triple double seven times this season. “It was a rebound away or an assist away. It depends on the coverages, good teams and how they’re playing. Its’ on me to manipulate the defense. It’s on my guys to be successful.”
Bryant’s ensuring that by playing a lot of minutes.
Against Sacramento, he demanded to stay in the game. Against Dallas, Bryant and Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni decided he’d play heavy minutes partly because of the urgency and partly because of the long timeouts stemmed from a TNT telecast.
“He was doing great,” D’Antoni said. “He said, why come out? We have to play the whole game. He has to watch it. We play Friday and Sunday morning so we’ll have to be careful. Going forward, we’ll try to give him some more time.”
The Lakers have the day off today and then resume practice Thursday before playing Friday against the Memphis Grizzlies. The Lakers then have a day game Sunday in a designated road contest against the Clippers at Staples Center.
How will D’Antoni manage Bryant’s minutes?
“A lot of it depends on Kobe,” D”Antoni said. “He’s been around a long time and he knows what he’s doing. We’ll have Steve back probably. We’ll go longer because steve will be back pretty soon.”
Even with big picture concerns about his 34-year-old body, Bryant maintains he’s relishing the current grind.
“That’s the mentality,” Bryant said. “That’s what we were going for. We got a tough schedule. But I would have it no other way. You want to get into the playoffs and expect to make noise, you got to beat playoff teams.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at email@example.com