Within two days, Kobe Bryant morphed from failing toward becoming an honors student.
The Lakers’ star always strives to become the valedictorian in the school of basketball. But after spending eight months out of the classroom because of a shattered left Achilles tendon, Bryant needed a crash course to catch up on his studies.
As the Lakers’ 114-108 loss Tuesday to the Phoenix Suns at Staples Center indicates, it’s clear so far that Bryant’s success hasn’t directly coincided with the team’s. The Lakers conceded 56 points in the paint. The backcourt in Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe combined for 48 points. The bench in Markief and Marcus Morris combined for 37 points. The Lakers are also 0-2 ever since Bryant’s return, dropping to a 10-11 record and a 12th place standing in the Western Conference.
But with Bryant posting 20 points on 6 of 11 shooting, three assists and three turnovers, it marked a stark improvement from his opening night line that entailed nine points on 2 of 9 shooting, four assists and nine turnovers. That’s why Bryant slid his self-imposed grading system from an F to a B.
“I feel I did a much better job tonight,” Bryant said.
Bryant showed that in several ways.
He opened the game showing he somehow found the fountain of youth again, throwing down a a baseline dunk after dribbling past P.J. Tucker. Bryant also showed off his athleticism by going up for a layup after Pau Gasol connected him on a no-look pass.
“Going to the basket is something I didn’t know I’d make it above the rim or not,” Bryant said. “But I figured I’d just try.”
Bryant managed, though. Was it possible because of another overseas trip to Germany? Hardly. A mere two days after suggesting his 225-pound frame at eight percent body fat was still too heavy, Bryant said he already dropped five pounds. He then joked his wife, Vanessa, “hates me” for dropping weight after playing merely one game.
“I felt a lot lighter,” Bryant said. “It’s crazy. I dropped some weight already. I can tell the difference in how I move. I still have some more pounds to go, but I felt a lot better.”
Bryant reduced his turnovers not only by making better passes to Gasol (19 points) and Jodie Meeks (13 points) that led to open shots. But he also reduced his ball handling completely and deferred to Steve Blake (10 assists), Nick Young and Xavier Henry. Instead, Bryant focused on moving off-the-ball and set up screens.
“I feel like it weighs too much on my legs physically. It doesn’t make sense for me to be on top of the floor a lot,” Bryant said. “We have guys on the team who are more than capable of handling those responsibilities.”
Meanwhile, Bryant resorted to his strengths.
That entailed plenty of work in his mid-range game, hitting a 20-foot jumper from the left wing and banking a 16-foot floater. It appeared Bryant’s strong foot work, patience in the post and livelier legs made the difference.
“That’s my go-to stuff,” Bryant said. “That’s rhythm stuff, catching it in the mid-post area, facing up and operating from there. That stuff I’ve been doing for years and I feel comfortable doing that.”
But it’s clear the Lakers aren’t comfortable playing with Bryant yet.
After Bryant began his time midway through the fourth quarter making two free throws and canning a 12-foot jumper, the Lakers spent the rest of the game expecting him to shoot on every possession. Instead, Bryant wanted to find team balance and play off how the defense covered him.
“We find ourselves watching Kobe take over in the fourth,” Young said. “We have to realize we have to wait until he gets a couple of more games under his belt. Then he’ll take over. Right now we have to help him out. The more games we play, the more comfortable we’ll be. We’re still getting used to playing with him.”
But how long will that process take?
The Lakers currently view their problem as an inevitable learning curve that will result in short-term pain for long-term pain.
“You have to allow them to play and make mistakes and then you have to be there to watch the film with them and go over some things that could’ve been done differently,” Bryant said. “But the truth of the matter is we have guys who are more than capable of operating in the fourth quarter and putting pressure on the defense. The important thing is to help them learn because it helps us as a group.”
Yet, the Lakers hardly have much time in experiencing a de-facto training camp in the middle of the season when they’ve already lost plenty of ground in the Western Conference standings.
“Every single day, we have to make sure we get better at something with Kobe in the lineup,” Henry said. “By the time it’s halfway through the season, it will be clockwork.”
Bryant showed some positive signs by exceeding his expectations on how well he shot the ball against Phoenix and his jumping abilities. But plenty of work remains. Bryant concedes his ankle tightens up. He also sat on the bench with a heating pad on his feet, though he downplayed the development considered he nursed soreness in that area in past seasons.
Bryant also maintains he won’t sit on any of the back-to-backs in the Lakers’ four-game trip that includes stops in Oklahoma City (Friday), Charlotte (Saturday), Atlanta (Monday) and Memphis (Tuesday).
“It’s my job,” Bryant said. “My [butt] is going to show up and play. This is what I do.”
But will Bryant’s marked improvement prove enough in overcoming the Lakers’ learning curve in accommodating his return? So far, Bryant’s improvement in his grades hasn’t boosted the Lakers’ fortunes.
“He’s going to get better. He’ll get his legs under a little bit more and we can strengthen and lengthen. It’s a little bit of not knowing where everybody fits in yet and they don’t know where they fit in,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “If you’re not rolling, you’re not going to win. We’re struggling and I think we’re struggling with our psyche and who we are and it’s a little understandable. But we have to get over this quickly.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org