NEW YORK — Within a short telephone conversation, Kobe Bryant displayed both his friendship with Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony and his insatiable competitiveness.
Anthony had just scored 62-point in New York’s win against Charlotte on Friday, breaking Kobe Bryant’s record set at Madison Square Garden at five years ago that even sent the partisan Knicks crowd greeting the Lakers’ star with “M-V-P” chants.
“I called him that same night to congratulate him and told him, ‘Today you can cool off,’” Bryant said referring to when the Lakers (16-28) enter a matinee Sunday against the Knicks (16-27) at the World’s Most Famous Arena. “You had a big night the other night. Today you can afford to 2 for 40.”
The Lakers have also lost 15 of their past 18 games, including its last three, while ranking 29th out of 30 NBA teams in total defense (105.8 points). Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni laughed at the suggestion Wesley Johnson would guard Anthony after starting for the past 12 games. D’Antoni said he’s making the switch because of concerns Wesley and Kelly could fall into early foul trouble and for fatigue concerns into sharing defensive responsibilities on Anthony.
“We’re going to try to give him contested 2’s and keep 3’s away as much as you can,” D’Antoni said. “He’s going to score. That’s what he does. He’s going to score. We have to keep everyone less out of the flow and hope he doesn’t have a great game. But he could.”
Anthony’s scoring outburst against Charlotte provided a temporary distraction over the Knicks’ dysfunctional ways. It’s so bad that Anthony could opt out of his contract to become a free agent this offseason to join another team. What does Bryant think of Anthony teaming up with him with the Lakers?
“Everybody wants to play in Los Angeles. New York is a beautiful place, don’t get me wrong. But New York is cold as [heck] out here,” Bryant said, laughing. “It’s palm trees and beaches are obviously more appealing.”
But seriously. Considering Bryant’s close relationship with Anthony, would he try to convince him to join his team?
“For players, when that time comes will have to make their best decisions for them and their family,” Bryant said. “I try not to think about it too much. If he wants to call me for advice later as a friend, I’ll be more than happy to give it to him.”
Bryant sounded sympathetic toward Anthony.
He has fielded criticism for his entire 11-year career by remaining one of the league’s most elite scorers without winning an NBA championship. Bryant went through somewhat of a similar path. After winning three NBA titles, Bryant went through a five-year spell from 2004 and 2009 where he faced skepticism whether he could win a ring without Shaquille O’Neal. Frustrated with a missed playoff appearance and two consecutive first-round playoff exits, Bryant also publicly questioned whether Lakers’ front office had both the competence and desire to build a championship roster around him. He then soon demanded a trade, though he eventually relented.
“I didn’t want to be known as a scorer. I wanted to make sure I had a team around me that could contend for a championship,” Bryant said. “This is a team sport. A lot of times you have to work with what you have around you and be lucky in the sense of having an organization put a good team around you and be successful.”
“From a psychological perspective as a player, you don’t want to get too frustrated about things you can’t control. YHu have to find that balance. At the same time, it’s important for the organization to understand the level of competitiveness that you have and that you wont tolerate having a team that’s not in contention for an NBA championship. That’s what I did and it rubbed people the wrong way. Sometimes you have to kick down a few doors and piss some people off and trust it’ll pay off in the long run. If your’e willing to do that, you’ll be okay.”
So how does Anthony cure his reputation as just a scorer?
“The only way to do that is winning,” Bryant said. “I won five championships and some of you still say that. You just have to take it and roll with it. Winning a championship, that’s the only way to shake it. That’s the only way Michael shook it. That’s the only way any top scorer can shake it.”
Bryant would know.
He has set numerous scoring records, including climbing to fourth place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list and posted a career-high 81 points eight years ago to Toronto. Bryant also scored 61 points at Madison Square Garden five years ago, a record until Anthony broke it.
“If I was a competitor, I would say Melo has more opportunities to set a Garden record than I did,” Bryant said. “But I’m not a competitor so I won’t say that.”
Instead, Bryant waxed nostalgic about his 61-point effort on Feb. 2, 2009 at MSG.
“During the game I remember being very calm. Everything seemed very peaceful,” Bryant said. “When you go to the Garden, the first thing you do is look around to see who’s at the game and soak it all in. In that particular evening, I felt supreme focus where it didn’t even matter.”
Bryant adopted that mindset even before the game started. Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, who coached New York from 2008 to 2012, recalled trying to greet Bryant in the hallway. But Bryant didn’t respond back. At that moment, D’Antoni said he knew Bryant would have a break-out performance.
“Anytime somebody comes into the Garden as a superstar, they get extra focused and get into a special place,” D’Antoni said. “They don’t take a night off.”
Why does such an approach make a difference?
“I’m not really sure,” Bryant said. “Part of the trick is trying to get yourself into that type of focus at will. That’s what we all try to figure out. We all try to put ourselves in that state of mind. It’s hard to do. On that particular night for whatever reason, that was the pocket I was in. That was the zone Iw as in and nothing else mattered.”
“The pace of the game, everything slows down for you. When I’ve had those games, it’s a surreal feeling. It feels like everything else around you doesn’t matter. It’s not important. The most important thing that’s going on is at that moment in time. It’s a level of focus that’s astronomical.”
Bryant won’t have the chance to upstate Anthony, however. The Lakers star remains sidelined with a fractured left knee and plans to get reevaluated Monday when the team returns in Los Angeles. But Bryant strongly suggested he won’t be in a position to return soon.
“I’ll finally do more things than just riding a bike,” Bryant said. “That’s absolutely killing me.”
The losing has taken a toll on Bryant too, showing glum expressions as he sits on the Lakers’ bench. But he has maintain a respectful distance into saying too much to the team. Instead, a normally cerebral Pau Gasol took that mantle following the Lakers’ loss Friday to Orlando, throwing what Bryant described as a “tantrum” in the locker room.
“That was the most irritated I’ve seen Pau in a long long time,” Bryant said. “It’s good. It’s something that needs to be done. It can’t be something where losing becomes accepted or we gave it a good effort sort of thing. You don’t do that around here. It’s not what it’s about. It’s not about giving food efforts. It’s about winning championships.”
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