This season should’ve marked a time when Kobe Bryant performed less with more. A time when he didn’t have to bail out the Lakers out of a bad game. A time when he could afford to take some rest to ensure his body stays fresh. A time when he’d maintain his scoring punch simply because he benefits from all the added attention his teammates command.
But like everything regarding this Lakers’ season, nothing has gone according to plan. The script has featured overlapping injuries and overlapping agendas.
The only constant?
Bryant’s superior play. So it should serve as no coincidence that his will propelled the Lakers to a 104-96 victory Tuesday over the New Orleans Hornets at Staples Center. Bryant’s 30 points on 9 of 18 shooting and six assists in 41 minutes gave the Lakers (41-37) a half-game lead over the Utah Jazz (27-51) for the Western Conference’s eighth playoff spot with four games remaining.
Not that Bryant’s necessarily thrilled with carrying that load, particularly when the Lakers play Wednesday in Portland on the second night of a back-to-back, something the Lakers have failed to sweep 15 times so far this season.
“I wanted to conserve some energy,” Bryant said. “I know we have a tough one [against Portland]. The more I could lay in the weeds, the better. This year was supposed to be a light year for me.”
Yet, there remains a simple reason why Bryant’s not fretting over whether exhausting fumes to lift the Lakers into the postseason will result in nothing more than a first-round flameout either against the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder. Or what the offseason picture could entail afterward should a disastrous finish to the season ensue.
“I’m not worried about the summer,” Bryant said. “What I’m trying to do is get us in the postseason where we start the f– over. You know how you play that really bad video game where you’re just really sucking it up and you want to hit the reset button?”
Yup, that’s how Bryant views this Lakers season. Yet, a contradictory picture emerges.
The Lakers are 12-7 since March, but five of those wins came against sub. 500 teams that the Lakers beat in only single digits. The Lakers had signature wins against Indiana and Memphis, but couldn’t beat elite opponents in Oklahoma City, Golden State and the Clippers.
Bryant’s tapping into his scoring instincts simply perhaps more clarity on the team’s development will emerge later. So he’s logging 40-plus minutes. And in the case against New Orleans, Bryant willed his way by fulfilling the job description that’s cast his legend.
Bryant scored 23 points on 7 of 11 shooting in the fourth quarter, consisting of pull up jumpers, drives to the basket and fadeaway shots. He even exerted himself on defense by holding Eric Gordon to six fourth-quarter points. Bryant also swiped the ball from him and converted on a three-point play that put the Lakers up 93-86 with 2:36 remaining.
“I’m tired, but I’m also in really good shape,” Bryant said. “I can pace a game and come out in the fourth quarter and do what I did tonight.”
But there’s conflicting messages on how the Lakers want Bryant to carry the burden.
Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni wishes Bryant would set the tone early.
“I’d like for him to do that in the first quarter,” D’Antoni said, “so we can rest him.”
Lakers forward Pau Gasol likes Bryant saving that energy for the fourth quarter.
“If he save his legs a little bit more in the early part of the game, it’s going to help us,” Gasol said. “He needs to take shots that are there. But when he’s more aggressive, it has to be later in the game and not much earlier.”
Yet, Bryant maintains his mindset hinges on something else.
“It really all depends on my teammates, honestly,” Bryant said. “If they’re knocking down shots and the game’s in a good balance, I can do that. If it’s not and the game’s getting away from us, then I got to go a little earlier than I would like to, which expends a great deal of energy for me.”
Gasol (22 points) and Antawn Jamison (13 points) complemented Bryant. But with Dwight Howard in foul trouble, Metta World Peace finding his timing and the Lakers’ defense mostly non-existent, Bryant had no other choice but to go back to his old ways.
“We need to get to the playoffs and hit the reset button and start over,” Bryant said. “The first part of the season was atrocious for us. But lately we’ve been doing pretty good so you just kind of want to hit the reset button and start from scratch.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org