OAKLAND –The moves looked so precise, repetitive and efficient as Kobe Bryant navigated around the court. He caught entry passes in the post before displaying his well-timed footwork to create favorable angles toward the basket. Bryant moved around the perimeter with ease as he hoisted 3-pointers with the same elevation, form and follow through. The Lakers’ 37-year-old star then went in the paint and perfected a series of hook shots with both his right and left hand.
As Bryant took these countless shots from all over the court, most of them sailed into the basket. Some rimmed out. Some fell short. But soon enough, Bryant hoisted more shots that then swished into the hoop. It looked like Bryant finally discovered his old self.
But there was one problem: Bryant completed and perfected this routine in pre-game warmups. No where did Bryant show any of his beauty in the Lakers’ 111-77 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday at the Oracle Arena. Instead, Bryant posted four points on a 1-of-14 clip, including a 1-of-7 mark from 3-point range. It could have been worse had Bryant logged more than 24 minutes, 41 seconds through three quarters.
“They were [crappy],” Bryant said. “In all honesty, it’s tough. The shots that I take in pull up shots and jumpers and contested jumpers, those are tough shots to hit at 27. They’re very tough to hit at 37.”
Bryant took plenty of those. His mid-range jumpers and 3-point shots mostly either bricked or rimmed out. Bryant also shot two 3-pointers that hit nothing but air. Bryant missed a layup. Bryant hoisted a mid-range jumper only for the ball to get stuck between the rim and the backboard.
“I have a lot of faith in him,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said. “I know how he is as far as his work ethic goes. I know how much pressure he puts on himself.”
Bryant insisted he felt “fine” despite his age and the appearance that he lacked lift on his shot. Instead, Bryant blamed himself that “I got out of my Zen tonight” amid feeling upset with the Lakers’ losing and execution.
“Frustration kind of got to me tonight,” Bryant said. “It affected the way I played and the way I shot, blown coverages defensively and coming down offensively and not having a concept of what we’re trying to do. It got to me a little bit and frustrated me a little bit. It affected my shot.”
But what about in other games?
Bryant has averaged 15.2 points on a career-low 31.1 percent shooting in 30.5 minutes. Bryant has shot 2-of-21 from 3-point range in the past four contests. Bryant has played 12 consecutive games in which he has logged less than 25 points while shooting under 50 percent, something he had never encountered before in his 20-year NBA career. Bryant had not played this badly since he posted nine points on 1-of-14 shooting against San Antonio on Nov. 14, 2014, a night that he had a viral infection.
Despite these developments, Scott insisted he would not decrease Bryant’s playing time in hopes of giving him more energy. Instead, Scott suggested Bryant change his shot selection.
“When you’re not making shots, I would prefer that he doesn’t shoot as many 3’s,” Scott said. “Try to get to his sweet spots. But you also have to think how he’s defending them as well. Maybe they’re giving him the three.”
That explains why Bryant wished out loud that he could get “easier shots” off pindowns, off-ball screens and catch-and-shoot opportunities. He said he will “work with the bigs and get some movements off the ball.” But Bryant also suggested the need for Scott to change his Princeton-based system.
“My shooting is better and will be better. But I could’ve scored 80 tonight. It wouldn’t have made a damn difference,” Bryant said. “You have bigger problems. I could be out there averaging 35 points per game. We’ll be what, 3-11? We have to figure out how to play systematically in a position that’s going to keep us in ball games.”
Perhaps easier said than done.
Scott has lamented the team’s offensive rhythm, but declined to put the blame on Bryant despite leading the Lakers in field-goal attempts per game (16.4). After all, Lakers second-year guard Jordan Clarkson had four points on 2-of-11 shooting, while Roy Hibbert missed all three of his shot attempts.
“We keep preaching about moving that ball more and not getting stuck so much. We have to get out of that habit,” Scott said. “We’re so stubborn at times in trying to do it ourselves.”
All of which made Lakers rookie point guard D’Angelo Russell upset for reasons beyond sitting the entire fourth quarter after posting eight points on 4-of-8 shooting, four rebounds, two assists and two steals in 25 minutes.
“I feel like we play through the offense. Then it breaks down and we go away from it,” Russell told Los Angeles News Group. “Then we don’t move [the ball] at all. We get an early shot or a shot deep into the possession. We have to figure out how to balance off good shots and timing. Everybody starts to feel like they can play hero ball. We know we can’t do it by ourselves. But we still manage not to trust each other and get it going.”
With that issue plaguing the Lakers, how do they fix it? How much should they lean on Bryant to lift the Lakers amid his shooting slump? How much should the Lakers go away from that to ensure team balance?
“I don’t know. That’s what we’re still trying to figure that out,” Russell said. “We just have to learn how to play with one another. When you’re running the system or running a play and [Kobe] does his thing, you have to learn how to still be available and not just be a robot and be out there.”
As for Bryant, he lacked the machine-like efficiency he showed in pre-game warmups. That set up a drastic juxtaposition in which Bryant’s shot and emotions fell apart at a time he once normally thrived.