The dramatic two minute video announcing Kobe Bryant’s return suggested he would ascend onto the court and instantly become the Lakers’ savior. Reality showed that Bryant didn’t have a prayer.
In his first game since shattering his left Achilles tendon eight months ago, Bryant showed a lot of things in the Lakers’ 106-94 loss Sunday to the Toronto Raptors at Staples Center that contradict what made him a five-time NBA champion and the league’s fourth all-time leading scorer.
He didn’t shoot much. Bryant mostly passed. He still played in the fourth quarter. But Bryant failed to close it. And after finishing with nine points on 2 of 9 shooting, eight rebounds, four assists and eight turnovers in 28 minutes, Bryant graded his performance woefully short of the career-high 81 points he unleashed against the same team 7 1/2 years ago.
“It’s an F,” Bryant said. “For me, it’s an F.”
As Bryant went through starting lineup introductions, the Lakers played the Star Wars’ ‘Imperial March’ because of his love both for the science fiction series, Darth Vader and John Williams’ music. It turns out Bryant encountered struggles adjusting to the force.
Bryant took on a facilitating role to accommodate his diminished athleticism. But that just opened up new vulnerabilities. Bryant’s passes went into traffic. He also directed away from his target.
Bryant’s quest to score didn’t work, either.
He airballed his first attempt on a left handed hook shot. Plenty of others nipped the rim. Bryant bricked his first free throw.
So much for the Nike ad playing on the Staples Center scoreboard that read, “Kobe Bryant doesn’t have anything left to prove, but he will anyway.'” So much for the Lakers’ curtain announcing Bryant’s return with, “Beware the smoke, beware the flame, beware the inferno, beware the Mamba.”
“This is a complete failure to me,” Bryant said. “I can run around for 28 minutes. But basketball wise it was a complete failure.”
Things turned worse in the fourth quarter.
The Lakers’ bench inexplicably outscored the starters, 71-19 and overcame a 14-point deficit. Yet, the 18,997 repeatedly chanted for Bryant to return, and Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni obliged.
Out went Xavier Henry and his 17 points on 6 of 8 shooting, and in came Bryant. But instead of leading the Lakers with one of the clutch performances that has become a part of his legend, Bryant finished with a fourth quarter line following the 6:53 mark that went like this: a missed 3-pointer, two made free throws, a missed four-foot jumper, a turnover, two of three made free throws and an off-balanced 3-pointer.
What happened to the game’s best closer?
“It takes time. You have to get the game legs back and make proper reads,” Bryant said. “The biggest thing for me is putting guys in a position to be successful. Then I can be a threat myself and be able to execute it if the defense gives me a shot. If I don’t, then I have to kick it to somebody else to knock down the shot.”
In this game, though, Bryant’s weaknesses didn’t entail scrutinizing his shot selection.
“The biggest thing is being responsible with the basketball,” Bryant said. “When the ball is in your hands, you have to take care of it and make the right decisions and the smart play.”
Meanwhile, the Lakers are pleading patience with Bryant’s acclimation.
They’re also arguing Bryant’s fourth-quarter rustiness didn’t offset the momentum that the Lakers’ bench built.
“You have to trust the coach,” Henry said. “I work hard and am aggressive and have faith it will pay off. I’m not the coach. He makes those decisions and he has reasons for everything.”
“I wanted to live a little bit,” D’Antoni joked. “We got to get through this. You lose the skirmish anyway, but the battle is bigger. We’re going to ride Kobe. We might as well get it over with. One game is not going to kill us. But we have to get him back as soon as we can.”
To do that, Bryant outlined a few proposals.
Though he weighs 225 pounds at eight percent body fat, Bryant wants to trim down even more to maximize his explosiveness. He supported D’Antoni’s plan to keep him under 30 minutes to ensure he stays healthy while still building a rhythm. Despite D’Antoni and teammates suggesting otherwise, Bryant offered zero blame for the team’s failure to adjust playing with him.
“It’s more me adjusting,” Bryant said. “I have to get used to the timing, the speed of the game, where those lanes are and how quickly they close down. There was a bunch of times where we’re just out of sync. I’m throwing the ball to a certain spot, but they’re shaking it up or staying spaced. It’s just about getting used to that rhythm.”
Bryant will follow his post game routines that entail prolonged ice baths. His television viewing afterwards will also involve reliving the latest nightmare.
“I don’t feel normal at all,” Bryant said. “I can’t wait to start watching the film and criticizing every little thing. I’ll go home tonight and watch it over again. But that’s the exciting part. The exciting part is you have a challenge, and you have some improvements to make. You sit and watch them, you break them down. You get ready for the next game and carry it from there.”
When Bryant rewatches the game, he will also notice a few positive developments.
His four assists and eight rebounds showed his hustle. Bryant’s willingness to adapt to a new role showed his genuine interest in helping the team. Bryant took two pump fakes to make a left-handed bank shot, showing how he can compensate for his lacking athleticism with his superior fundamentals. The fact that Bryant played 28 minutes showed his heightened conditioning.
“I felt good I was able to get into the lane,” Bryant said. “I felt okay I can penetrate and turn the corner. That was a big question mark for me. Once I got in there, I didn’t make the proper reads most of the time. The reads you can improve. The explosiveness you can’t. A little bit of it is there.”
And let’s not forget, Bryant returned from an injury in eight months that have either ended or severely eroded other NBA careers.
“It was really weird. I think the last time I had eight months off, I was still in the womb. So it felt good to get out there,” Bryant said. “The accomplishment is in the work. It was really hard every single day to get to this point. That part I’m very proud of, especially being in the league so many years. You have to find the motivation every single day to do the rehab. From that stand point, I’m very proud.”
But the game itself? Not so much.
“These are baby steps,” D’Antoni said. “Everything you’ve done in the past, you can’t always do. He is human, I think.”
The videos, the tributes and the “Kobe” and M-V-P” chants may have suggested otherwise. Whether Bryant can return to such iconic status remains to be seen. But as he showed through his latest recovery, Bryant will get up again and again, eager to overcome a challenge with the same unyielding drive that ensured his greatness in the first place.
“It’s like chopping a tree,” Bryant said. “One swing of the axe is not going to get it done. You have to keep at it, keep at it and keep at it and stay focused internally to improve.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org