The Lakers beat the New Orleans Hornets 93-91 to run their record to 1-1 in Bryant's absence. And Bryant made the most of it by wearing a dapper suit and trying out a new role as "coach" Kobe, receiving rave reviews from Lakers coach Mike Brown.
"Kobe was great," Brown said. "He was great talking to the guys. He was great talking to us (on the coaching staff). I’ll tell you, he’s one of the smartest guys that I’ve ever been around, if he’s not the smartest. His I.Q. for the game is so high."
But, it doesn't take a genius to notice that the Lakers are vastly different with Bryant suited and (protective walking) booted, than they are with the five-time NBA champion out there on the court.
Here are five ways they changed the last two games without Bryant playing vs. what we saw in the first 56 games of the year with Bryant in there:
1. GASOL BECOMES THE MAN WITHOUT ACTING LIKE "THE MAN"
Gasol might have slipped down the pecking order in the Lakers' offense this season, taking a backseat to Bryant and first-time All-Star Andrew Bynum, but he asserted himself in the last two games without Bryant in the mix. Gasol followed up a season-high 30 points and 13 rebounds in the Lakers' 125-105 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Saturday with a game-high 25 points and nine rebounds against the Hornets.
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"Just more looks. More opportunities. Also more responsibilities since Kobe obviously attracts so much," Gasol explained on Monday as the reason for his 27.5 points per game average without Bryant in there, a more than 10-point increase from his 17.2 points per game average on the season. "I’m one of the anchors when he’s not there even more. So, I’m a lot more involved in the offense and it is what it is."
The beauty of Gasol's surge without Bryant is for all the talk of him being too passive a player, it actually reveals he sacrifices a lot so Bryant can play his game. He has experience carrying his team night-in and night-out for all those years in Memphis and he can draw on that when he needs to, without being demonstrative about it.
"I’m not trying to be the main guy here. We have a great team and great weapons. We just got to be able to utilize them at their best," Gasol said. "I just picked up a little bit the role of scoring and being aggressive defensively just because of the absence of the top scorer in the league, basically."
I even jokingly challenged Gasol before the game to try to eclipse his career-high 44 points on Monday because the circumstances might allow it with Bryant out and his opponent being a 15-41 Hornets team.
Gasol said he'd be fine just getting 10 points as long as the Lakers got the win. It's fitting that Gasol's most important play all night didn't involve him registering a stat, but rather him setting a solid screen to free up Sessions to hit a 3-pointer with 26.1 seconds left to put the Lakers up by six.
"Those are winning plays that don't show up in the stat sheet but are important and crucial sometimes," Gasol said.
2. BYNUM SEES MORE DOUBLE COVERAGE
Bynum has done a terrific job this season of learning how to deal with double teams and triple teams after really not seeing them much at all in the first six years of his career, but he's also gone through that process with Bryant on the court most of the time also commanding a lot of attention from the defense. With Bryant not in there, Bynum became the sole target for the Suns and Hornets. Faced with all that extra attention, Bynum didn't fall flat on his face -- putting up 23 points and 18 rebounds against Phoenix and 18 points and 11 rebounds against New Orleans -- but he did struggle somewhat. Bynum shot a combined 17-for-44 in the two games (38.6 percent) which was well below his 58.1 percent shooting percentage before the two game spell.
3. SESSIONS SPREADS HIS WINGS
Sessions and Bryant have been able to develop a decent on-court chemistry in their short time together already, but their strengths don't necessarily complement one another as Bryant likes to operate out isolation situations while Sessions thrives through pick-and-rolls and penetration. Sessions was needed to dictate the terms of the game without Bryant in there, and while he was solid if not spectacular against Phoenix (11 points on 5-for-8 shooting, nine assists and just one turnover), he was all-important against New Orleans (17 points, six rebounds, six assists and he hit the clutch 3 to seal it while assuming the same spot in the out of bounds play to set up the 3 that Bryant did a week ago when he hit the same shot off the same play against New Jersey).
"The one thing is he’s got to always try to control the tempo for us, which is what he did (Monday)," Brown said. "Other than that, at times he’s got to pick spots to score. If we feel like we’re in a rut, he’s got to go create in the pick-and-roll game at the top of the floor and be more aggressive. If Kobe is out there, he may not have to do that as much. But not, he’s got to pick it up and do a little bit more with Kobe sitting on the sidelines."
Metta World Peace also had praise for Sessions.
"I was so happy with the point guards," World Peace said. "They grew up tonight. Steve (Blake) is a vet (but) Sessions has never been in the playoffs. He grew up tonight. I was really happy."
With the Lakers controlling the tempo so well that it resembled a work of art, according to World Peace, L.A. was able to hold the Hornets to zero fast break points.
4. WORLD PEACE LEADS
World Peace's comments about Sessions' and Blake's games were almost big-brother like on Monday and even though he almost (literally) threw the game away with a risky pass to Matt Barnes on the final play, you could see him involved all game encouraging his teammates, pointing out defensive rotations and calling mini huddles to keep everyone on the same page.
"When (Derek Fisher) was here, I look up to Fish," World Peace said. "There were times when I had to do my own thing on different teams. I'm used to being in that role, but when Fish was here, Fish was a great leader ... I think I'm the second most veteran player (after Bryant) and I got to talk a little bit. Just try to help out. Fit in."
As much as World Peace looks up to Fisher, there is still a bit of an awe factor he reserves for Bryant and when the Mamba is out on the court, World Peace differs to and becomes a soldier behind him in line rather than acting like a fellow general.
5. THERE'S NO 4TH QUARTER BAILOUT FROM BRYANT
Bryant relishes his role as the team's closer and takes the challenge upon himself to rescue the Lakers in a game's waning moments when L.A. desperately needs a score. While it's been debated just how "clutch" Bryant really is, there is no doubting his fourth quarter heroics have won L.A. a slew of games over the years. Without Bryant playing on Monday and the Lakers locked in a one-possession game with less than three minutes to play, an amazing thing happened: L.A.'s last five buckets were scored by five different Lakers. First a two-foot layup from Gasol, then a two-foot layup form Bynum, then an eight-foot runner from Blake, and then finally couple of threes from World Peace and Sessions.
"Of course we miss Kobe, he’s amazing, but this just gives all of us a little bit more confidence to be able to win without him," Blake said.
Lakers trainer Gary Vitti said Bryant was improving on Monday and if No. 24's track record is any indicator, he'll try to give it a go Wednesday in San Antonio for their big showdown with the Spurs. The Lakers learned a little bit about themselves without Bryant in there, and we didn't even mention the maturity Devin Ebanks showed by averaging 9.0 points in his two starts after hardly playing in the last two months or the adaptability Barnes displayed by fitting in nicely as a backup shooting guard.
"I hope that he gets back soon," Gasol said. "Obviously we’re used to playing with him a lot and he’s such a determined player. So, whenever he’s ready, we’ll be happy to have him back."
In the long run, the Lakers might look back and be happy they had him gone -- if only for a short while -- to test just what they have.