Battered Bryant Needs Lakers Teammates to Step Up
At 31, he's a Derek Fisher retirement away from being the oldest player on the team. He's been bogged down by injuries. He had a 21-year-old get the best of him in the fourth quarter in Game 3 of his Lakers' first-round series against Oklahoma City.
Strangest of all, Bryant is admitting he was at a bit of a loss against Thunder forward Kevin Durant, who outscored him 12-4 in the fourth quarter of Thursday's 101-96 win by Oklahoma City.
"I think Durant's length had something to with it,'' said Bryant, who shot 2-of-10 after Durant was moved over to guard him for the fourth. "It caught me off-guard.''
So how can the Lakers, who still lead the series 2-1, help their star guard out in Game 4 Saturday at the Ford Center after he shot just 10-of-29 for 29 points in Game 3?
For starters, how about getting their big men going? The Thunder are fronting the Lakers' post players, something they haven't seen much this season.
"It kind of mucks the game up,'' Bryant said of all the times the Lakers are watching the shot clock run down before having to take a bailout shot. "We've got to figure out a way to free up our post players to get the ball in position where they can be effective.''
The Lakers also can help Bryant by finding a way to wake up reserve forward Lamar Odom. After averaging 10.8 points and 9.8 rebounds during the regular season, Odom has embarrassing playoff numbers of 6.3 points and 6.7 rebounds.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson said before Game 3 he told Odom something to the effect of he was "MIA' in the first two games. But Odom's game was still pretty much DOA as he had eight points and six rebounds Thursday.
"I've just got to find my offense, create shots for myself, create plays off the dribble, get the ball a little closer to the basket,'' Odom said.
The Lakers must find a way to take some pressure off Bryant, who is playing with a right index finger he has fractured, has had a sprained left ankle and missed the final four games of the regular season due to swelling in his right knee.
"During the regular season for sure,'' said Bryant, admitting his ailments made him not quite the same player he was last year. "I played some games where I could barely walk or catch the ball. ... I'm getting there, but I don't need to be (100 percent).''
Bryant said the four games off really helped him, although that really hasn't been shown so far in the preseason. Although he did score 39 points in Game 2, he shot just 12-of-28. Overall, Bryant is shooting just 36.8 percent while averaging 28.0 points in the series.
"He's not even really letting us know exactly how he's feeling in terms of pain,'' said Fisher, 35. "I don't know if he's in any pain per se. I think it's obvious the fact he just took some time off down the stretch to get some rest. But I don't think he's in pain that would limit his ability to play.''
Still, it wouldn't hurt for Bryant to get some more rest by the Lakers making this a short series. But Bryant, careful not to stir up the Thunder, said, "That's not going to happen. It's a dogfight.''
Well, if the top-seeded Lakers win Saturday, they will have a chance to close out the No. 8 Thunder in five games Tuesday at home. That's would be a short series. And Bryant could get even more rest if No. 4 Denver and No. 5 Utah play a long series.
Bryant is averaging 41.0 minutes against Oklahoma City. That's in line with what he's logged the past two seasons in the playoffs, when the Lakers went to the Finals in 2008 and won it all last season. But Fisher now sees a player who paces himself more.
"He's done a much more concerted, focused job at picking spots to carry the load and then back off and let other guys carry the load,'' Fisher said. "So he's picking those spots where he's more assertive, really aggressive offensively, then taper it back.''
But if other guys aren't stepping up when it's their time to pick up the load, that's putting more pressure on Bryant. Forward Pau Gasol is averaging 20.3 points in the playoffs on impressive 55 percent shooting, but nobody else is averaging more than 11.0 points.
After totaling 13 points and 12 rebounds in Game 1 following his return from missing a month with an Achilles injury, Lakers center Andrew Bynum has averaged 9.5 points and 8.5 rebounds the last two games. He admits Oklahoma City's fronting of post players has led to some adjustments being needed.
"We just don't know how to do it,'' Bynum said before Friday's practice about combating that sort of Thunder defense. "That's what we're working on. ... This is the first team that has actually fronted us (this season) in that manner.''
If the Lakers can do a better job of getting the ball down low, that would help Bryant. Regardless of what happens, it will be up to Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks on how long to put Durant on Bryant in Game 4, knowing the move could tire his star more and put him at added risk to get in foul trouble.
"We'll definitely look into it,'' said Brooks, who also has used Thabo Sefolosha and Jeff Green on Bryant. "It's kind of an interesting dynamic when you throw three or four different guys at a player. It just gives him a little different thing to look at. ... It takes a lot of energy.''
Durant, at 6-foot-9, is listed as being three inches taller than Bryant. But Bryant says long arms make Durant seem like 7-3.
"I try to use my length,'' Durant said. "He's played (14) years in the league, and I'm sure he's seen defenders like myself.''
If that's the case, Bryant isn't speaking about them. Bryant said that, while he's learned how to attack other Oklahoma City defenders, "we'll see how I do with Durant.''
Bryant was asked if he would put Durant on him the entire game.
"Sure, I would,'' he said.
You know, though, that Bryant is being much too open about his supposed surprise at seeing Durant on him and in his praise of the young fellow's defense. He is the "Black Mamba,'' meaning he no doubt is plotting to move in for the kill.
But a more injured and older Bryant might not strike as quickly as he once did. It's up to his teammates to provide some sting of their own.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson.