So much for the dramatic music and symbolism in his comeback video.
Kobe Bryant remained at the Lakers’ practice facility Sunday in a manner that hardly captured the excitement surrounding his return tonight when the Lakers (10-9) host the the Toronto Raptors (4-12) at Staples Center, marking his first game since tearing his left Achilles tendon eight months ago.
He took a series of three-pointers. Bryant shot some free throws. And once he finished his work, Bryant walked past reporters at both a brisk pace and without any hint that he’s favoring his Achilles tendon toward the trainer’s room.
“He was a little quiet today,” Lakers forward Pau Gasol said. “But he’s been eager out there to get back on the floor and do what he does and be who he is.”
Bryant’s demeanor also reflects the Lakers sentiments.
They’re giddy about having their perennial closer, their demanding leader and their most talented player.
“Everybody is eager to have Kobe back and continue to play well and continue to move up,” Gasol said. “That’s the line we’re at right now.”
But the Lakers sound uncertain on how Bryant will for the first time in 240 days under different circumstances. Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni plans to play Bryant in the 20-minute range, a stark contrast to the 45 minutes he averaged seven games leading into his injury. The Lakers suggest Bryant will take on a facilitating role after making his mark in his 18-year NBA career as one of the league’s best scorer. D’Antoni also said Bryant will guard Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan after scaling back defensively in past years to save his legs.
“He’s ready to roll,” D’Antoni said. “Everyone knows what’s at stake and we’re anxious to see what we can do. We’re all on the same page. In the heart of the battle, we’ll find out. I don’t think anyone knows how he’s going to react to the first three or four minutes. He might need a quick blow or can stay in longer. But we want to stay aware of what’s happening.”
The Lakers gushed about how Bryant returned eight months from an injury that could become career-threatening to other players.
“We knew he was going to do that,” Gasol said. “I know that’s going to happen because of how hard he works and the people that have helped him along the way. I have plenty of trust he’ll be fine. It’s been remarkable what he’s been able to recover so quickly.”
But the Lakers stressed caution on how they integrate Bryant’s dominant presence with the teamwork and balance that ensured a castoff-oriented lineup staying above the .500 mark during his absence.
“The biggest concern is we just watch him play and they don’t bring their egos to the game and do what they’ve been doing,” D’Antoni said. “We have to take a step forward. We can’t take a step backward.”
More unanswered questions remain.
How do the Lakers fully benefit from Bryant’s scoring, defensive attraction and skillset while fully tapping into the Lakers’ versatility, hustle and teamwork that fostered on and off-court chemistry?
“His knowledge for the game will dictate a lot of what we will do out there,” Gasol said. “He’s going to find the positions and figure out the positions where he can be most effective at this point. We also have to adjust to those plays and positions. Just make it effective for everyone and ease him back into the rotation. It’s going to be hard to hold him back. But he’s going to have so much fun with it at the same time. We’re going to enjoy the process as well. We’re all very positive about the situation. We know we’re going to be a better team on the floor with him.”
Bryant participated in three consecutive practices this week, reporting improvement in his range of motion, how his ankle feels the following morning, his conditioning and his driving. But Bryant still sees weaknesses in his cutting and jumping. But how will that all play out in an actual game?
“It’s completely different. That’s why no one really knows,” D’Antoni said. “We know the intensity will go up. We have more adrenaline going into the game. Individually you’re different and the game is different.”
D’Antoni, Lakers trainer Gary Vitti and team doctor Steve Lombardo will continuously monitor Bryant’s movement, energy level and injuries once he steps on the court. After showing caution throughout his rehab process, will Bryant still maintain the same discipline on the court?
“We have a loose plan,” D’Antoni said. “As the game goes on, Gary and I will be talking. The doctors are right there on the bench. We’ll be talking. Kobe will be the ultimate decider in how he feels.”
How that plays out remains to be seen. But after a long eight months where they only saw Bryant in the training room and on the practice floor, the Lakers remain equally giddy and anxious on their star finally joining them on the court.
“Obviously you knew he was going to beat the odds and the timetable,” D’Antoni said. “His whole goal was to do that. He did that. Now I’m sure he’ll beat how he can be coming back. That’s what makes him so special.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org