OKLAHOMA CITY - Kobe Bryant's scoring average is down again this season.
He's playing better than ever.
Cause and effect?
"Kobe's playing as well as he did last year," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said after the team practiced Monday afternoon at Southern Nazarene University.
"Most of that is simply because he's a better leader. He's more determined in that aspect."
Bryant averaged a league- leading 35.4 points in 2005-06, but the Lakers lost to the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs.
He averaged 31.6 points in 2006-07, leading the league again, but the Lakers lost to the Suns again in the opening round.
His averaged dipped again last season to 28.3 points, but he
won the league's MVP award for the first time in his career and helped the Lakers reach the NBA Finals for the first time in four years.
This season, Bryant is averaging 27.6 points and the Lakers have the league's best record at 46-10 going into tonight's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Lakers' loss to the Boston Celtics in the Finals last June has stoked Bryant's competitive fire, Jackson said.
"I think mostly it's the drive," Jackson said. "Every game he comes out and there's a purpose these guys have to play for, there's a reason to go out there and win. There's a motivation he provides by always pressing the team forward.
"A lot of times it over runs guys. They're upset they're not getting
as many shots. And he says, `OK come get the ball. If you want to take it from me, you've got to show me you're as hungry to score, as hungry and aggressive as I am.' "So that's the leadership he provides."
Kobe or LeBron?
Jackson can't vote for the MVP award, which is determined by media members at the end of the regular season.
It doesn't mean he can't voice his opinion.
So, would he endorse Bryant for the second consecutive season or would he back LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers?
"The two are such different ballplayers, but they're similar in many aspects: body makeup, the way they play the game," Jackson said when asked to analyze the Bryant-James matchup for MVP. "Kobe's having a really great year. LeBron's having a greater year than he's ever had. He's a better player than he was last year, by far."
James is averaging 28.7points, trailing only Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat (28.8). Bryant is third (27.6) with Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant fourth at 26.2.
Lakers center Pau Gasol was named the Western Conference Player of the Week after averaging 20.3 points on 63.5 percent shooting, 10.8 rebounds and 6.5assists in victories over Atlanta, Golden State, New Orleans and Minnesota.
The Lakers worked through "about 14 screen-and-roll scenarios just to re-establish our fundamentals," Jackson said on the day after he called their defense "pathetic" and "sloppy" during a 111-108 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Jackson faulted the Lakers' intensity Sunday after watching the Timberwolves shoot 50 percent and force the Lakers to scramble down the stretch in order to win.
He didn't back off in his assessment after watching some of the game on video.
"We've got to be a better team," he said.