Questions About Bryant's Battered Body Remain Entering Game 2
It's his middle finger that will have carried the weight of his world.
And that, make no mistake, would be perfectly poetic.
There is a quiet skepticism surrounding Bryant once again, the kind of doubt that has always inspired him to raise the most rude of his five digits. But the questions this time around have nothing to do with trusting teammates or cooperating with his coach.
It's all about Father Time, about his knee, his ankle tendon, his finger.
Can he lead the Lakers to 15 more wins with this battered body of his? The question remains unanswered entering Game 2.
After resting his fractured right index finger and other sorted ailments for four of the last five regular season games, Bryant admitted after the Lakers' Game 1 win over Oklahoma City that there was an adjustment in order for Tuesday night's tilt. He will "adjust his stroke" from here on out, using his middle finger to compensate for his fractured digit.
His shooting touch in the first round opener was clearly affected by the finger, as he hit just 6-of-19 from the field and has now hit just 27-of-89 attempts in his last four games (30.3 percent). But it was his 7-of-12 outing at the free throw line that coaches and scouts say is the most relevant, the charity stripe struggles often a sign of a player who just isn't physically right.
Yet the high number of attempts could be seen as a positive sign for the defending champions. Bryant had taken six or fewer free throws in five of his past seven games, leading some locals to wonder if his right knee hadn't swelled of late and led to a less aggressive style.
True to form, the 14-year veteran was in no mood to solve this mystery after Monday's practice. Surrounded by media at the Lakers practice facility in El Segundo, the steely-eyed Bryant wouldn't elaborate on the state of the finger on which he's still wearing a splint.
"It's fine," he said when asked.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who said Bryant carried the same stoic disposition in the team's light practice as he did with the press, doesn't expect his shooting guard's understated ways to change.
"He's not going to offer any excuses," Jackson said. "I don't think he will."
Meanwhile, Jackson's relative rookie of a counterpart wasn't about to give Bryant an excuse for added motivation. Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who's in his first full season with the head job, insisted Bryant looked like himself while being contained by Thabo Sefolosha and Jeff Green.
"I didn't see any physical issues at all," Brooks said. "He's one of the best players ever. I thought we really challenged ourselves to really get into him and really be physical with him. But Kobe is as physical as they come. The guy is strong."
Of the many Lakers players queried, only center Andrew Bynum expressed even the slightest bit of concern about Bryant being able to last the entire postseason. Lakers assistant Brian Shaw, who was Bryant's teammate from 1999 to 2003 before joining the coaching staff in 2004, was confident like the rest but focused more on the finer points of Bryant's game.
"I thought he played fairly well," Shaw told FanHouse. "But I'd like to see him be a little bit more efficient, taking quality shots as opposed to quantity. ... When he has an open shot, take it. But sometimes he will search for a better shot, and that's where he sometimes gets himself in trouble. You just want to see some more efficiency."
As is always the case regardless of Bryant's medical chart, the need for balance remains. Forward Pau Gasol was pleased with the distribution of shots, noting how all five starters took at least 10 attempts. Derek Fisher and Ron Artest were a combined 7-of-23, the sort of performances that would inspire Bryant to go it alone in his younger years.
That, too, must change. By the look of Game 1, Bryant needs more help now than ever.
"I think (the balance) is important because we have so many weapons ... so many guys who can hurt you, so many mismatches on the floor," Gasol said. "It's important that we utilize all our weapons."
Tuesday evening will tell the tale. But what we already know is this: while Bryant credited Sefolosha's length as the toughest part of that matchup and the fourth-year player is certainly a respected defender, he's no Ron Artest. And should he shut down one of the game's all-time greats for a second straight time, every purple and gold alarm inside the Staples Center should be sounded.
"This is going to be a challenging series for him, because this is a very young, long, athletic team, and he's not the Kobe that he was at training camp," Shaw said. "He's got a lot of nicks and bruises and wear that have come with the grueling season."
To follow Sam on Twitter, go to @sam_amick.