Kobe Bryant wants to guide these Lakers to an NBA championship. But their 11-13 record hardly suggests that will happen. Bryant wants to become an elite player again. But he isn’t. Bryant wants to see steady progression in his game as he sheds off the rustiness stemmed from his eight-month absence while healing his left Achilles tendon. But as Bryant saw in the Lakers’ 114-100 loss Monday to the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena, that didn’t happen.
Bryant posted eight points on only 4 of 14 shooting, six assists and five turnovers in 32 minutes. The numbers look worse considering Bryant went one of eight from the field in the second half, a sign the Lakers’ star could have suffered from fatigue. The Lakers conceded the challenges in Bryant finding the energy, the lift and the strength in his Achilles to push through when the Lakers visit the Memphis Grizzlies Tuesday at FedEx Forum.
“We try to rest him when we can, but we’re also trying to win games,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I think it’s normal. He is where he is. Without a training camp, there’s going to be some tiredness out there.”
Yet, the Lakers star vowed he won’t let his inner frustration cloud his mindset.
“It’s tough to settle,” Bryant said. “There’s certain things I feel I can do and other things I can’t really do yet. But I feel like they’re coming. It’s having the patience and keeping your eye on the big picture and continuing to work and get stronger.”
What ultimately is Bryant’s big picture outlook?
“It’s hard to tell,” Bryant said. “Obviously I never had an injury like this and it’s different. I do the work three to four times a day just to get to where I’m at right now. I’m moving pretty well off this injury. But it’s hard to gauge.”
It sure is.
Bryant had showed some slow albeit steady progression in each game that he had played in the past week. He graded himself an F in his debut in the Lakers’ loss last Sunday to Toronto where he posted nine points on 2 of 9 shooting, eight rebounds, four assists and seven turnovers. But Bryant expressed feeling a sense of accomplishment that he had returned to the court. Bryant graded himself a B in the Lakers’ loss last Tuesday to Phoenix after posting 20 points on 6 of 11 shooting. He showed there he could score and set screens for others.
Bryant’s performance dipped in the Lakers’ loss Friday to Oklahoma City where he posted four points on two of six shooting, 13 assists and seven turnovers. But with injuries to Steve Nash (nerve issues in back), Steve Blake (torn ligament in right elbow) and Jordan Farmar (strained left hamstring), Bryant offered some encouragement he could man the point guard position once he sheds enough rustiness to reduce his turnovers. Bryant then showed off his scoring touch and clutch play by posting 21 points on 8 of 15 shooting in 32 minutes and hitting two free throws to seal the Lakers’ win Saturday over Charlotte. Though he still posted seven turnovers, Bryant’s improved lift in his shot and his eight assists suggested the two-man tandem between Bryant and Pau Gasol could become a winning formula in the same way that secured them two NBA championships.
“So far it’s been successful,” Gasol said. “He hasn’t gotten hurt or rehurt. That’s a positive.”
Against Atlanta, though, Bryant simply took a step back.
“It felt a little stiff on me,” Bryant said. “That’s the next level of progression in playing these games. When you sit out and get back in, I need to keep it loose. It’s a matter of time I can increase the activity and the ankle will get used to it more.”
It also didn’t help Atlanta devoted plenty of its resources trapping Bryant full-court to put more pressure on him as he brought the ball up the floor. L.A. (11-13) has lost four of its last five games since Bryant’s return from his Achilles injury that sidelined him eight months ago. But the issues go beyond Bryant’s rustiness.
“We have to do a better job taking the burden off of him,” D’Antoni said. “We need to get other people involved and move the ball around.”
That didn’t happen Monday.
The Lakers’ front line seemed unstoppable in the first half, led by Jordan Hill (13 points) and Pau Gasol (11 points). Then they combined for 13 points on only six shot attempts in the second half.
“We got stagnant and the ball wasn’t moving,” Gasol said. “We allowed them to get into it. They were picking Kobe up full-court and made him work to get the ball up. We just didn’t create any movement, motion and any energy for ourselves. We made it easy on them. We have to make sure we stay in motion. If we play inside-out, that’s always a positive.”
The Lakers’ bigs came up small, though, on defense.
They conceded 42 points in the paint. After outrebounding the Hawks 28-17 in the first half, the Lakers lost 27-15 on the boards in the second half. So much for D’Antoni saying beforehand his team should rank in the top 10 in total defense. The Lakers currently sit 29th overall, conceding 103.48 points per game.
“We have to focus,” Bryant said. “Every night is a different puzzle. You have to problem solve. Tonight their rebounding was an issue. They weren’t able to cure that.”
Bryant’s cure to problem solve his own puzzle hardly involves anything fancy.
He’s constantly stretching and icing his Achilles tendon. Bryant texts Lakers trainer Gary Vitti at all hours of the day to ensure he receives enough around-the-clock treatment. Bryant vowed he’ll study his teammates tendencies more in hopes of both reducing his turnovers and sparking better chemistry. Yet, Bryant also suggested that D’Antoni should feature multiple ball handlers, such as Xavier Henry and Nick Young, with him in the lineup to ease his responsibilities.
“There’s certain things we need to correct and fix,” Bryant said. “A lot of it starts with me getting healthy. I’ll get there and I’ll be able to control things a lot more.”
But how long will that take?
D’Antoni believes it could take a month before Bryant consistently plays above the rim. Former Hawks forward Dominique Wilkins, who ruptured his right Achilles tendon in 1992, told this newspaper he believes Bryant won’t round into form until the NBA All-Star break from Feb. 14-16, 2014. When told of Wilkins’ estimation, Bryant seemed to agree.
“Physically, I used that as a barometer in terms of progressing when the season goes on,” Bryant said. “During the All-Star break, I use that time to reset the system and evaluate where you are physically and then use that weekend to kick it up another notch. Then come the second half of the season, you’re ready to roll. That’s what I did last year and at this stage of my career, it’s more important than ever to understand how to pace your body.”
Good news for the Lakers: Bryant has showed the track record that he can overcome most injuries. Bad news for the Lakers: they hardly have much time and security to climb out of the Western Conference cellar while Bryant figures out how to push back Father Time and Mother Nature.
Yet, Bryant refused to think that way. At least for now.
“As a player you rely on experience and rely on the years we had slow starts,” Bryant said. “I try to stay focused on that. Last year was dire straits. It doesn’t feel like that situation. I don’t sweat it too much.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org