Slow Start Forgotten as Kobe Finds Another Gear
But one month ago Kobe Bryant went on what looked to be a shooting strike. For the first 15 minutes April 24 at Oklahoma City, the Lakers guard didn't take a single shot and pretty much looked out of it throughout the 110-89 blowout loss to the Thunder.
Something looked to really be wrong with Bryant that night, which finished with him shooting 5 of 10 for 12 points, his lowest playoff output in 10 years. Before the Lakers flew home after that disastrous trip to Oklahoma City, where they lost twice to the Thunder to fall into a 2-2 tie in the first-round series, Bryant went to the locker room well before the final buzzer to get icing started on his ailing right knee.
But that now seems so long ago. In the Western Conference finals, Bryant is being called by Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry and Suns forward Amar'e Stoudemire the best player in the NBA, and there don't seem to be too many arguments.
"I had that nasty stuff sucked out of my knee,'' Bryant said Monday about what is the difference since he left Oklahoma City following Games 3 and 4, when he shot 15 of 39 and averaged 18.0 points. "Since then, I've had fun. You watched my play in the first games of that series and from the end of the regular season (when Bryant missed four of the final five games due to the sore right knee) until now.''
Many have watched since then. And, if Bryant continues to play the way he has, Hall of Fame officials might be asking him to send in some memorabilia from this stretch.
Bryant said the ailing right knee was drained after the Lakers returned to Los Angeles following Game 4 against the Thunder. He still didn't look like himself in the first game after that, shooting 4 of 9 for 13 points, although the Lakers were able to roll to a 111-87 win.
Since then, though, it's been Killer Kobe. Over his past eight games, Bryant is averaging 32.1 points and 6.9 assists while shooting 51.7 percent. The Lakers, after the two losses in Oklahoma City, eliminated the Thunder 4-2, swept Utah 4-0 and now lead the Suns 2-1, meaning they've won eight of their last nine.
"Yeah,'' Lakers coach Phil Jackson said about Bryant looking like a completely different player the past month. "But this again is an issue that we have to monitor, and he has to monitor from game to game. The duration of distance between these games has helped him out a lot.''
Starting with Game 5 against the Thunder on April 27, the Lakers have played just nine games in a month. To offer a comparison, the Lakers played 17 games in January.
"I think he's gotten healthier,'' said Lakers forward Pau Gasol. "He's taken care of his body throughout the playoffs. Obviously, it has made a difference.''
It sure has. In the three games against the Suns, Bryant is averaging 32.3 points and a stunning 9.7 assists.
In Game 1, Bryant was mostly a scorer, totaling 40 points and five assists. In Game 2, he was more of a distributor, scoring 21 points and handing out a playoff career-high 13 assists.
In Game 3, Bryant did it all, although shoddy Lakers post play resulted in a 118-109 loss Sunday. He scored 36 points, handed out 11 assists and had nine rebounds. It marked the first time in 188 career playoff outings he's had more than 35 points and more than 10 assists in the same game.
"In our system, it's one night I'm doing this and one night I'm doing that,'' Bryant said of whether he might look to score big or seek to distribute the ball more. "It all depends on the defense and the position I'm on the floor. [Sunday] they started man to man and not really helping much, and I scored a lot. As the game went on, you saw them double teaming and zoning it up a lot more. So I found guys.''
The Suns were able to escape with a win in Game 3, but guard Jason Richardson knows they can't keep watching Bryant pile up big scoring and assist numbers if they are to win the series.
"You know Kobe is going to score,'' Richardson said. "There's no doubt about that. He's going to get his 30-plus points. ... You don't want him to have 10, 11 assists. That means he's getting other people involved. We've got to figure out a way to let him score or let him be a distributor. We got to pick our poison, which one we want. At any given time he can score so I don't think we want him to be a distributor.''
About the only thing Bryant didn't do Sunday was hit three-pointers, going 2 of 8 after he had been a solid 10 of 25 in his previous eight games. If Bryant finds the range again from beyond the arc, Stoudemire sure won't be surprised.
"Kobe is the best player in the NBA,'' Stoudemire said. "I'm pretty sure he practices all the time to figure out what he can to do improve himself and his teammates.''
So, Bryant is better than LeBron James?
"Oh, yeah,'' Stoudemire said. "LeBron's a great player. But I think just from a skill standpoint, footwork, attitude of the game, I think Kobe is the best player in the league.''
Stoudemire would get less of an argument now that James, despite being handed the past two MVP trophies, has seen his Cavaliers flame out in consecutive postseasons. But Gentry takes it a step further.
Gentry calls Bryant the best player ever. And don't think Gentry has forgotten about a fellow North Carolina native by the name of Michael Jordan.
"I still think he's the best player that ever played the game. I really do,'' Gentry said. "He's playing great in this playoff series. He's shot the ball unbelievably well in this playoff series (52.3 percent). He hasn't had a whole lot of open shots. The night he got 40, I thought Grant [Hill] did a good job on him.''
It was so much easier for defenders a month ago when Bryant didn't even take shot in the first quarter of a game. In the three first quarters of this series, he's averaging 7.3 field-goal attempts.
Bryant sure is having a lot more fun.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson