If the Lakers were going to win this game, George Karl probably advised his team, they would have to do it with someone other than Kobe Bryant leading the way.
Arron Afflalo, ready for the challenge, velcroed himself to Kobe all afternoon and, with help from other Nuggets, had Mamba constantly surrounded. It worked; he was 3-17 and had five turnovers.
A bad shooting night for Kobe usually translates into trouble for the Lakers.
If it came down to the last second against this new and improved Nuggets team, you have to wonder, would Kobe have been able to hit a game winner, and would it have omitted the 4-18 line in his box score? Probably, but today, instead of fighting through the stingy Denver defense with a ridiculous volume of shot attempts, Kobe helped close the game by taking a little detour from Scoring Street, to venture into Assist Avenue and Defense Drive.
Other than his 14 points, he also had 12 assists, five rebounds, three steals and two blocks. It’s a shame that only when he struggles offensively, do we get to appreciate the rest of his talents and skills.
No, Kobe was not his usual offensive juggernaut on Sunday. He was barely an offensive presence at all. Nevertheless, this early afternoon game is where the lessons from his five-game layoff seem to have materialized. His competitive spirit was, as always, pouring out of him, but it was not in the form of a jaw jutting out from his face looking fierce. It was in the form of a jaw that moved up and down, back and forth, calmly chewing gum as he handed out 12 assists.
His infamous drive and determination did not show up in him grabbing his hand or his ankle in pain and then playing through it. The drive was there in the three steals and two blocked shots that he fought for. Kobe’s confidence was not visible in thunderous dunks or heroic three-point game winners. His confidence permeated then emanated out of his teammates, who had played and fought so well while he was healing, and then stood their ground and won this most impressive game, not because HE scored 81 points, but because THEY didn’t give up.
Kobe did not play for two and a half weeks, getting round-the-clock treatment on his injured ankle/tendon, and surely giving his dislocated/fractured digits some time to rest. In those two and half weeks, Lakers followers felt both relief and anxiety in seeing Kobe finally giving his ailing body a chance to heal before the post-season, yet wondering if his time off the court will have made him more or less effective when it came time to rejoin his teammates.
Were two and a half weeks enough? Could he re-injure himself? How will he work himself back into the team’s obvious (and to many, surprising) success of late? All were valid concerns until Kobe showed up in uniform again.
There is something about Kobe that sets him apart from so many elite players in this ultra-competitive league — his calmness, even in the midst of a close game, and contentment with which he plays. And after missing just five games, Kobe looks happy to be playing again.
In his post-game interview after the Memphis win, John Ireland asked how much it pained him to have to sit out those five games, probably referring to the fact that he couldn’t put his stamp on any of the wins, and Kobe admitted so, but ended his reply with, “I missed the guys.”
Kobe experienced more than healing and recovery in those two and a half weeks that he was unable to play. He experienced the enjoyment of watching his teammates succeed without him. In a game against a title-contender like the Denver Nuggets, it would have been easy for the Lakers to fall prey to a team who, since they were eliminated in last season’s Western Conference Finals, believe they can bully and talk their way over anyone, anytime. It would not have been a surprise if, even despite the tough defense, the Lakers continued to make Kobe shoot them out of another loss, but Kobe knew the Nuggets were gunning for his ultimate failure. They expected him, wanted him to jack up contested shots. If only Denver understood that Kobe could rely on so much more than his own scoring to get this win.
On this Sunday afternoon, the Lakers captain relied on something more valuable than a box score of impressive stats. Kobe drew from the richest, most thirst-quenching well in the NBA — his teammates. Lamar Odom’s double-double, Ron Artest’s suffocating defense against Carmelo Anthony, Pau Gasol’s incredible NBA acumen, and bench contribution.
Like ‘Melo declared, or rather dared, in his halftime montage, Pick Your Poison. On Sunday, Denver picked on Kobe Bryant, yet the Lakers still won. Despite shooting 18% (WOW!), Kobe STILL managed a double-double.
J.R. Smith can Twitter all he wants; he can run his mouth off all he wants. Did HE turn his 3-12 shooting into a win for HIS team? Yeah, didn’t think so.