Kobe should shoot the lights out

April, 25, 2012
4/25/12
11:27
PM PT
Shelburne By Ramona Shelburne
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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This time of year, and especially in this kind of a season, NBA players have been sitting out and resting up whenever and for whatever reasons they feel like.

With the way their bodies have been taxed by the condensed season, guys aren't even trying to be tough about it.

But the one player who should not sit out the season's final game is Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant.

Bryant needs 38 points in the Lakers regular-season finale against the Sacramento Kings on Thursday to pass up Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant for the NBA scoring title and he should absolutely go for it.

ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin reported Wednesday night that the Lakers, having locked up the third-seed in the Western Conference playoffs, are considering resting all of their starters except Bryant in Thursday's game.

The final call will be up to Bryant, and while he has said capturing his third career scoring title was "not very important," that doesn't mean he should sit out the regular-season finale for appearances' sake.

If he plays there are going to be people who criticize him for chasing an individual title and say it proves he's being disingenuous when he says he only cares about chasing a sixth NBA title.

Here's guessing those are the same people who had an issue with the Mets Jose Reyes coming out after getting a hit in his final at-bat last season to give himself the best chance of winning the National League batting title last season.

But here's also guessing all of those people already don't have a favorable opinion of Bryant.

The man has been in the league 16 seasons already. Everybody already has an opinion of him and there's nothing he can do or not do to change it except to win titles and embellish his resume for comparison against the game's all-time greats.

That's beside the point, though. Bryant should play because players should play if they want to. Because a sold out arena in Sacramento might be watching its last NBA game. And yes, because it does mean something if he wins a scoring title at age 33.

Only Michael Jordan was older when he won the last of his 10 scoring titles at age 34 in 1998.

Becoming the second-oldest man to win one, yeah, that means something. It means even more at a moment in time when the next group of superstars is nipping at Bryant's heels and probably about to pass him.

For some perspective on the situation I headed out to Dodger Stadium Wednesday evening to ask Dodgers manager Don Mattingly about the epic 1984 race for the American League batting title between him and his Yankees teammate Dave Winfield.

Mattingly was Durant in that dynamic. The fresh-faced young star with no baggage all the fans rooted for. Winfield played the Bryant role, the polarizing Hall-of-Fame-bound veteran.

That race came down to the final game of the season when Mattingly went 4-for-5 to beat out Winfield, who went 1-for-5, for the crown.

"It was never personal," Mattingly said. "He wanted to win, I wanted to win, but I didn't feel like I could lose if I hit .339 and finished second in my second year. I'd be like, 'I'm hitting .330 in the big leagues.' "

Asked specifically about Bryant's chase, Mattingly -- who is a big basketball fan dating back to his high school playing days in Indiana -- said he thought Bryant should absolutely play in the last game of the year.

"Some guys, when you're coming down the end of the season, want the rest," Mattingly said. "Other guys are like, 'Let's keep playing, keep the momentum.'

"If you ask [Derek] Jeter, down at the end of the year and we had a four or five game lead, he wants to play because he wants to stay sharp. Is that wrong? Some people will say he should've taken the rest. "

I'm still not sure why so many people fail to grasp that players want to play, superstars want to prove they are superstars and gasp -- they might have a pretty big ego.

Of course they do. It's why they're so good in the first place. It's why they want the ball in their hands at the end of a game, even if it's a bad shot, and even if a teammate might have a better shot.

"I like Kobe. He's a killer under pressure," Mattingly said. "He's one of those guys that wants the ball. He's hit so many big shots."

If you fall into that camp, if you admire Bryant for being that late-game killer and admonish LeBron James for his penchant of shrinking in those situations, you cannot now criticize Kobe for trying to win a scoring title in the last game of the season.

Or, if you have an issue with Bryant, you should also take exception to this quote Durant gave the Oklahoman: "Of course it's in the back of your mind. We're coming down to the last few games of the season. Of course it will be cool to win three [scoring titles] in a row."

Did you get that? Durant wants to win, too.

So why is one guy celebrated and the other vilified?

"Everybody likes that fresh face, somebody new," Mattingly said, speaking of his early years in New York. "It's like the cycle, that's the way it goes."

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Nick Young
PTS AST STL MIN
17.9 1.5 0.7 28.3
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsJ. Hill 7.4
AssistsK. Bryant 6.3
StealsK. Bryant 1.2
BlocksW. Johnson 1.0