In what will mark his first appearance since shattering his torn left Achilles tendon eight months ago, it appears Kobe Bryant will take a conservative approach when the Lakers host the Toronto Raptors Sunday at Staples Center.
Bryant will start at shooting guard, sliding Jodie Meeks to the bench. But Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said Bryant won’t nearly play the 38 minutes he averaged per game in the previous two seasons.
“I don’t think it’s a magical number,” D’Antoni said. “He’s totally well and ready to go. I think he’ll be limited by his wind and ability to take the pounding. I would be surprised if it’s more than in the 20’s. It shouldn’t be any more than that.”
Bryant didn’t speak to reporters following a light practice Saturday, but he’s echoed support for that idea in recent weeks. Good thing for Bryant considering D’Antoni made it clear who’s calling the shots.
“Do I expect I have to control him?” D’Antoni said. “Do I expect I can control him? I don’t expect anything. That would very dangerous on my part to think I can do that.”
Bryant tore his left Achilles tendon on April 12 against the Golden State Warriors, and D’Antoni immediately earned criticism for allowing his star player to average 45.6 minutes per game in the previous seven contests as the Lakers scrapped for playoff contention. Both Lakers trainer Gary Vitti and outside medical experts downplayed that reality, attributing torn Achilles tendons as more of a freak injury. But D’Antoni said Bryant will become more mindful of his playing time under these circumstances.
“We’ll watch it. He’ll know,” D’Antoni said. “He doesn’t want to play bad. His competitiveness might get the best of him. SO we’ll talk and stuff. But at that point, Kobe does what Kobe does. He’ll understand his body.”
Bryant will play a variety of roles upon his return.
He’ll play at shooting guard. Because of ongoing injuries to Steve Nash (back) and Jordan Farmar (strained left hamstring), Bryant will also pick up point guard duties. Of course, Bryant’s commanding presence will hold weight, too.
But can Bryant replicate last season’s output when he averaged 27.3 points on 46.3 percent shooting, six assists and 5.6 rebounds?
“I think so,” D’Antoni said. “We’ll see. I don’t think to start with, but give him a month and he should be back to those numbers.”
In the meantime, D’Antoni envisions Bryant taking on a large facilitating role in hopes of sustaining the team’s balanced offense. D’Antoni also expects Bryant to resort more on his fundamentals to offset any possible diminishing athleticism.
“He’s not going to be above the rim for a while, which is fine,” Bryant said. “Great players play below the rim. He’ll have to control the game and his presence will be significant.”
And with that comes both a blessing and a curse.
The Lakers (10-9) missed Bryant’s dominant scoring and late-game clutchness. But with the Lakers fielding a roster full of castoffs, D’Antoni seems aware of how the team maintains its aggressiveness while Bryant takes a larger share of the scoring.
“Just to integrate him, he’s a big piece. When you throw a boulder into the water, there’s going to be a lot of serious ripples,” D’Antoni said. “Some people will have to adjust to it. Some people’s minutes will be adjusted and not having the ball quite as much. But you have to be mentally tough to get through this. Adding a big piece like this, everybody has to adjust a little bit.”
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