For a minute there, it looked as if he might play this comeback cautiously. Remember last week when he was asked if he was fine keeping his minutes in the mid-20s for a little while? He laughed and said, "Hell yeah." Remember when he said over the summer the other young guys would have to carry the Los Angeles Lakers offense for a while as he worked back into form?
But come on, we all knew once he got back onto the court, started to feel his legs back under him a little and the competitive juices started flowing, you were going to have to put quote marks around the phrase, "holding him back."
Tuesday night in Memphis was about the furthest Bryant has pushed himself since returning to the court six games ago, and if it hadn't been for a weird knee tweak in the third quarter, he would've pushed it even more.
"You've got to crank it up at some point," Bryant said after scoring 21 points in a season-high 33 minutes in the Lakers' 96-92 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. "I have to push it a little bit. This was a big game in terms of being able to tell what my body can do. It's a tough schedule, in terms of the amount of games. Tonight, I really wanted to challenge myself to see what I could do physically."
What he didn't say was that he had to spend all day stretching, icing and doing therapy to shake off the soreness that had built up in his body after logging heavy minutes during this trip.
If it were training camp, this was the kind of game he would've simply skipped to rest and recover, but with the Lakers down to zero healthy point guards -- in danger of slipping further below .500 and behind the pack of teams clustered around it in the Western Conference -- this was the time to push, not pull back.
"It's tough, but I did everything possible to get ready for the game," Bryant said. "As a result, when the game started, I felt pretty good."
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- What better way to finish a dreary, injury-plagued trip than to face a team that has been hit harder by the injury bug than you?
The Los Angeles Lakers showed up in Memphis without any true point guards Tuesday only to find out the Memphis Grizzlies were going to be without their young star point guard Mike Conley, who had bruised his thigh in a loss to Minnesota on Sunday.
They took advantage.
Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol each scored 21 points, and Nick Young had 18 to lead the Lakers to a 96-92 win over the Grizzlies at FedEx Forum.
Playing in only his sixth game since returning from a torn Achilles tendon, and fourth game in five nights, Bryant played a season-high 33 minutes.
He appeared to twist his knee midway through the third quarter after getting tangled with Memphis' Tony Allen but stayed in the game and was effective down the stretch.
Gasol had one of his most effective games of the season against his old team, hitting nine of his 12 shots and grabbing a team-high nine rebounds.
Zach Randolph led Memphis with 18 points and a season-high 16 rebounds, but the Grizzlies clearly missed their floor leader and lost their fourth straight game to fall to 10-14 on the season.
How it happened: The Lakers led by as many as 15 points in the first half and looked to be putting the injury-plagued Grizzlies away early until Memphis' second unit came in and turned it into a tight game. The Lakers' reserves did a nice job at the end of the third quarter and start of the fourth quarter to build the lead to as many as 11 points before the Grizzlies made it close again toward the end. Bryant and Gasol scored 11 points in the final six minutes of the game to close it out.
What it means: Although this in no way diminishes the Lakers' need to get one of their injured point guards back ASAP, Tuesday's win was nice way to end this four-game, point guard-less trip. They'll have a couple of days off before playing at home Friday.
Hits: Bryant put his stamp on this game early, scoring eight points in the first quarter and 21 overall on 9-for-18 shooting. He was particularly effective out of the post against Allen, rookie Jamaal Franklin and Jerryd Bayless.
Misses: A night after scoring 21 points on perfect 8-for-8 shooting, Jordan Hill got into early foul trouble and was basically a nonfactor. Hill played only eight minutes, leaving Shawne Williams to pick up the slack.
Stat of the game: 12. As in, 12th place. As in, the place in the Western Conference standings where the winner of Tuesday's game was going to find itself. That was where the Lakers were projected to finish this season by ESPN, but not at all what the Grizzlies had in mind after making the conference finals a season ago.
Up next: After four games in five nights away from home, the Lakers get a couple of nights at home to recover before hosting the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday. Point guard Jordan Farmar (hamstring) is scheduled to have an ultrasound Wednesday, which will determine whether he is cleared to resume practice Thursday and has a chance at playing Friday.
ATLANTA -- Yeah, about that momentum. It’s not happening on this four-game road trip.
Whatever hope the Los Angeles Lakers had of building off their comeback victory in Charlotte against the Bobcats on Saturday night -- whatever hope they had of building off the steps Kobe Bryant seems to take each game back that he plays -- were squashed Monday with a frustrating 114-100 loss to the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena.
After an off day Sunday spent watching a movie at a local theater and regrouping after a taxing swing through Oklahoma City and Charlotte, the Lakers seemed well positioned to take this one against the undersized Hawks.
But, as has been the case far too often this season, they went away from what was working offensively, fell apart defensively in the second half and were never really in it down the stretch.
Instead of back-to-back wins, the Lakers face the prospect of back-to-back losses with a game scheduled Tuesday night in Memphis against the Grizzlies.
How it happened: The Lakers had the game in hand in the first half but gave up an unsightly 35 points in the third quarter and looked lost on both sides of the ball, and the Hawks took advantage.
What it means: The Lakers continue to struggle defensively, and it's costing them very winnable games they’ll regret later. This time, they let sharpshooter Kyle Korver obliterate them in the second half with 11 points in the third quarter.
Hits: When the Lakers were playing inside out with Pau Gasol in the first, it really opened up the floor for the rest of the team. Gasol made his first six shots and had 11 points and nine rebounds in the first half. Forward Jordan Hill was the beneficiary of several opportunities created by the attention Gasol drew. He had 13 points and six rebounds in the first half.
Of course, the Lakers totally went away from that in the second half and neither forward contributed much the rest of the game.
Misses: Jodie Meeks has had a rough go of it on this road trip. After making just one of his eight shots on Monday’s game against the Hawks, Meeks is just 5-for-28 in the three games.
Stat of the game: The Lakers were an abysmal 5-for-21 from behind the 3-point arc Monday. At one point in the third quarter, Mike D’Antoni even put sharpshooting, but rarely used, rookie Ryan Kelly into the game to try to jump-start something. He didn’t end up taking a shot in seven minutes of play.
Up next: The Lakers fly to Memphis to conclude this four-game road trip against the Grizzlies on Tuesday night. Memphis is still without center Marc Gasol and recently lost guard Quincy Pondexter for the season.
Farmar has missed five games after suffering a torn left hamstring in a December 1 loss to Portland, but has already resumed shooting and basketball-related activities. He will be re-evaluated after the Lakers return from their four-game road trip on Wednesday.
D’Antoni deferred any official projections to the Lakers training staff, but said Farmar was “pretty close” to returning. Farmar was averaging 9.2 points and 4.4 assists in 18.9 minutes before he was injured.
If he indeed does become the Lakers' starting point guard when he returns -- Steve Blake and Steve Nash remain out with injuries -- that means Bryant will slide back into his normal role on the wing. The Lakers had planned to use Bryant more as a forward, until the injuries to Farmar and Blake (elbow) pressed him into point guard duty.
One thing that won’t change though, is the difference in the way the starting unit will play compared to the reserves.
D’Antoni said he expects Bryant and Pau Gasol to play a two-man game when they’re on the court together because each are so good at creating their own shots.
The second-unit needs to create shots “collectively.”
“Yeah, just naturally,” D’Antoni said of how the starting unit will function differently with Gasol and Bryant. “They have to. Kobe’s a hell of a shot creator and so is Pau. So they’ll play one way. And then that other group is going to have to do it collectively. Hopefully we can get that started a bit more.
“They’re going to play distinctly a little bit different until we get guys back and completely legs under us and get poing guards back in there to even it out a little bit.”
ESPN reported on Saturday that while they prefer to keep Gasol, the Lakers have had to weigh trading the Spaniard again, after his struggles on the court and recent comments about feeling frustrated with his role in D’Antoni’s system.
Gasol said he’s taking the latest round of speculation in stride.
“I’m used to it by now,” he said. “It’s been three years since that trade went down, for Chris Paul, so it’s been a constant thing for me. It’s like getting up from bed and having breakfast.
“It means that I’m wanted. If no one wanted me, I wouldn’t be in trade rumors.”
The script almost writes itself by now. It begins with a couple of games of listless play, some choice words from whomever is coaching the Los Angeles Lakers at the moment, some choice words in response from Gasol, a few days of back-and-forth passive-aggressive barbs, a passionate defense of Gasol's value and brilliance as a basketball player from his basketball hermano Kobe Bryant, and then hugs all around a few days later.
"That's every year. They're like an old couple," Bryant said dismissively Friday night, when tensions between Gasol and Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni boiled over once again. "That's every year. It's not really anything new. It's not a big deal."
That may end up being so. The Lakers would still prefer that Gasol work through his issues and put pressure on them to re-sign him when his contract expires at the end of this season. And even if they decide to shop him around the league this winter or listen to other offers, it's likely no team will come up with a package that entices them to act. The Lakers' stance of not taking back salary obligations beyond this season makes any substantive deal hard to execute.
But while everyone is in this unsteady but strangely familiar moment, two things generally happen: Bryant finds a way to push the right buttons in Gasol, and Gasol ultimately stops pouting and does something about it.
It's how they work and, generally speaking, it does work in the end.
Saturday night, after the Lakers' ugly 88-85 win over the Charlotte Bobcats, Bryant got on Gasol for his six turnovers, joking after the game that "I gave him a hard time in the locker room. I can't throw him the ball if he ain't got no thumbs."
He also praised Gasol's defense on Al Jefferson down the stretch, saying, "They were great defensive plays," but then noticeably adding, "We've got to do a much better job of hanging our hats on that."
In other words, it's still button-pushing time.
Black swan, white swan, "put your big-boy pants on" time.
Bryant will build Gasol back up later, after he gets mad enough to respond to the challenge.
It's their dynamic, and by now we all know it well.
The thing is, at some point the script will flip. The narrative may be well-worn, but it doesn't have to end the same way each time.
There may come a season, perhaps even this season, when everybody simply moves on.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan is choosy with the games he travels to see from his Florida home. But he wasn't going to miss Saturday's home game against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Although the two men talk often, it's rare to see the two basketball luminaries in the same building. And with Bryant's career winding down, you wonder how many more times it will happen in the future.
Quite a stage, right?
Coming off injury, Bryant might not be able to do all of the things he's capable of yet, but he still has a flair for the dramatic. The 35-year-old guard rallied the Lakers from a six-point deficit in the final minutes and hit what proved to be the winning free throws with 37.1 seconds remaining in an 88-85 win. He finished with 21 points, eight assists and seven rebounds.
The Lakers (11-12) had lost three straight games since Bryant's return from Achilles tendon surgery, which was mostly a coincidence, but also becoming something of a concern as L.A. dropped further below .500.
A transition period was fine. A rut was not.
"We lost a little bit of our swagger," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said before the game. "We have to get back to play a little harder and in the sense of a little more urgency. We take plays off and we're not good enough to do that."
Saturday night, they were just good enough.
How it happened: Bryant hit two free throws with 37.1 seconds left to give the Lakers an 86-85 lead, and Pau Gasol sealed the win with two good defensive efforts on Al Jefferson and two free throws of his own with 6.2 seconds left.
The Lakers and Bobcats arm-wrestled their way through the first three quarters, both playing like teams who had to travel to Charlotte for the second night of a back-to-back. The Bobcats made a run midway through the fourth quarter and built the lead up to six points before the Lakers rallied in the final three minutes to pull out the win.
What it means: The Lakers seemed more comfortable with Bryant running the point Saturday than they did Friday night in Oklahoma City but are still clearly trying to regain the swagger they'd built up when they won six of eight games before Bryant's return.
Hits: After being deferential Friday night in Oklahoma City, Bryant came out of the gates firing. Bryant was just 2-for-6 from the field against the Thunder. He eclipsed that in the first quarter alone Saturday night, scoring eight points in nine minutes and hitting three of his first four shots. He finished with 21 points on 8-for-15 shooting and proved he could play in back-to-backs in just his first week back from Achilles tendon surgery.
Misses: The Lakers' depth has been a strength this year, but not so much Saturday night. It's hard to say whether the bench's poor 6-for-25 shooting was a result of heavy legs and extended minutes on the second night of a back-to-back or just poor shooting. But the Lakers were fortunate to pull this one out with such limited production from their bench. The unit of Xavier Henry, Shawne Williams, Nick Young and Robert Sacre combined for just 26 points.
Stat of the game: The Lakers have played at the third-highest pace all year, but, man, this was a slow game. The Lakers had just two fast-break points on the night.
Up next: The Lakers have Sunday off and are scheduled to watch a movie together at a theater in Atlanta. They'll face the Hawks on Monday night and the Grizzlies on Tuesday in Memphis.
But as much as patience is a necessary virtue over the course of an arduous 82-game season, and as much as Kobe Bryant, an 18-year veteran who has experienced everything the game has to offer, was right when he said afterward, "I'm not worried about it, to be honest with you. ... We've seen worse," there is no denying that the Lakers find themselves at a critical juncture of the season already.
It's a stepping stone, a necessary evil, an opening move on the checkers board that Lakers management hopes will leave them telling the NBA, "King me," once again by lifting another Larry O'Brien Trophy sometime in the near future, or ideally, sometime in the next three years before Bryant calls it quits.
It's also somewhat of a testing ground to better educate the decisions the Lakers front office will make for 2014-15 and beyond.
If L.A. doesn't win a game the rest of the season, it would have already accomplished several important steps toward its goals, in locking Bryant up to an extension, having Bryant return healthy and, in the tanking scenario, improving the chances of its first-round pick in the 2014 draft landing a top-tier talent.
But a subpar season the rest of the way is not preordained, even with all of the Lakers' point guards on the mend and Bryant going through what he calls his own personal preseason in December to get his game right, all the while with Pau Gasol and coach Mike D'Antoni taking passive-aggressive runs at each other through the media this week.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kobe Bryant was pass-first. He was a facilitator, a creator. The Mamba channeled Magic out there against the Oklahoma City Thunder, owners of some magic of their own at Chesapeake Energy Arena with a perfect 10-0 home record coming into Friday night.
But as much Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni ended up being right for preaching confidence in Bryant's point guard abilities, it was another statement he made before tipoff that rang even more true.
"We spend 90 percent of the time talking about offense when our problem is defense and our problem is toughness and that's where we got to get to," D'Antoni said. "Sometimes we don't play hard enough and if we get that, you know what? The other stuff works out. It's amazing how it works out."
Yes, Bryant racked up double-digit assists (falling two shy of his career high with 13 in 23 minutes) and filled in at point guard for the Lakers' point guard-less roster, but L.A. provided about as much resistance as a porcelain plate against the Thunder's raucous offense.
Oklahoma City put it on L.A. with 122 total points, marking the third time this season the Lakers (who scored 97 of their own) have given up 120 points or more, with 50 of those Thunder points coming in the lane after D'Antoni specifically started Jordan Hill alongside Pau Gasol to try to curb that paint production.
It's going to take a lot more than Bryant collecting dimes to get the Lakers through this trip.
How it happened: The Thunder led by 10 after the first quarter, 15 at halftime and 20 heading into the fourth. Then they pushed the lead to as many as 30 in the final frame. This wasn't a game, it was a mockery.
What it means: The Lakers are now 10-12 and look like a team at a crossroads. After taking so long to find some sort of identity they could lean on from game to game, injuries to Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar and the reintegration of the still-rusty Bryant back into the mix have this team in a tailspin.
Hits: Wesley Johnson returned to the starting lineup with a solid 13 points, 3 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block and 1 assist.
Nick Young scored 17 points off the bench.
Gasol scored 14 points on 6-for-10 shooting in 23 minutes, sitting out the fourth because the game was out of hand.
Chris Kaman snapped a streak of nine straight DNPs by putting up nine points in the fourth quarter.
The Lakers scored a season-high 22 fast-break points.
Robert Sacre pulled down a career-high eight rebounds.
Xavier Henry attempted a career-high 16 free throws (but made only nine) en route to 15 points.
Ryan Kelly scored the first two-point basket of his young career.
Misses: The much-ballyhooed matchup of Bryant checking Russell Westbrook lasted all of one possession. Westbrook hit a 3-pointer the first time down the court for OKC with Bryant contesting and suddenly it was Bryant on Andre Roberson and Jodie Meeks sliding over to Westbrook the next time L.A. was on defense.
Kevin Durant scored 31 points in 31 minutes. Westbrook had 19 and 12 assists.
Bryant, who came into the game averaging 5.5 turnovers in his first two games back, had seven against the Thunder.
Meeks shot just 3-for-16.
Stat of the game: 0-3. That's the Lakers' record since Bryant's return.
Up next: L.A. plays in Charlotte on Saturday on the second night of a back-to-back set. The Lakers are 1-3 so far this season in the second game of these setups. They finish their four-game trip with another back-to-back Monday and Tuesday in Atlanta and Memphis.
Kobe Bryant, who said he weighed in at 225 after not playing a game in nearly eight months because of his torn Achilles, has already lost five pounds by his estimation since returning to the lineup. His playing weight the last couple seasons had been around 200 pounds.
Now Bryant, 35, is trying to get Pau Gasol, 33, to join him. 'Tis the season to be dieting.
"I told him I thought the thing that really helped me out, I dropped some weight," Bryant said after practice Thursday. "I told him he should probably measure it himself, see if that's something he needs to do himself. As we get older, our metabolism slows, we quietly become a little heavy."
Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said that he would leave it up to Gasol to manage his body.
"I think that's between him and [conditioning coach] Tim [DiFrancesco] and the strength guys," D'Antoni said. "I think coming off of inactivity this summer, I think he is a little sluggish, but I think that will go away if he keeps playing. The biggest thing is just, everybody to a man has got to play harder and worry about things less."
Gasol is listed as 275 pounds in the Lakers media guide. The weight is based on what the player tips the scales at during training camp. He was listed at 250 pounds last season.
After the Lakers' 122-97 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday, Gasol said he is now at 259 pounds after starting the season closer to 270 and that his body fat percentage is "probably the best I've been."
Gasol came into Friday averaging 14.0 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists this season while shooting a career-low 41.7 percent from the field. He had 14 points on 6-for-10 shooting with seven rebounds against the Thunder.
He admitted that he has noticed a stricter diet benefiting other aging All-Stars around the league.
"It's good to have a good solid muscle, but as you get older you want to help your joints by losing a little weight," Gasol said. "Tim Duncan has done that. I think Dirk [Nowitzki] has slimmed down. I think that's a way to prolong your career. So, I understand where [Bryant is] coming from."
D'Antoni, 62, who is coming off of reconstructive knee surgery from last November, has not let age or injury act as an excuse in trying to personally stay in shape.
"I've lost a little weight," D'Antoni said with a smile. "I've done my part."
While Steve Blake (elbow) will be out at least six weeks and Steve Nash (nerve root irritation) doesn't even have a timetable of when he could get back to game action, Farmar's return could be just around the corner.
"I think, I hope, I come back way ahead of schedule," Farmar told ESPNLosAngeles.com after shootaround in Oklahoma City on Friday.
Farmar has missed the Lakers' last three games after suffering a tear in his left hamstring against the Portland Trail Blazers on Dec. 1. The 27-year-old guard received platelet rich plasma therapy on the tear and was initially expected to be out approximately four weeks, according to the team.
Farmar had his hamstring re-evaluated this week and the ultrasound showed "healing and improvement" according to the Lakers but still had "a ways to go." Farmar said Friday that he does not feel the tear at all any more when he goes through his rehabilitation exercises, but he has yet to push it through sprinting or other basketball activities at full speed.
Could he play during the Lakers road trip which includes four games in five nights through Oklahoma City, Charlotte, Atlanta and Memphis?
"I don't think they'll let me," Farmar said, adding that the team has to be smart and consider his health for the long term. "There's still 60 games left to the season, there's a lot of basketball to be played."
Farmar will be re-evaluated when the Lakers return to L.A. next week and if he is cleared to play, could be back in the lineup on Dec. 20 when they host the Minnesota Timberwolves, essentially missing three weeks (and seven games) with the injury instead of four weeks (and 12 games).
Farmar, who left more than $3 million on the table in Turkey to return to Los Angeles, is averaging 9.2 points and 4.4 assists on the season for the Lakers, improved numbers from the 7.2 points and 1.5 assists he averaged in his last season in L.A. in 2009-10.
The Lakers will trot out their 10th different starting unit through their first 22 games when they play the Oklahoma City Thunder by going with Kobe Bryant, Jodie Meeks, Wes Johnson, Jordan Hill and Pau Gasol to tip things off, D'Antoni said after shootaround Friday.
"We'll see how it goes," D'Antoni said. "Just trying to pack the paint up a little bit and try to get a little bit more of a defensive presence inside."
The Lakers are second to last in the league in points in the paint allowed, giving up an average of 47.7 points per game. In L.A.'s last game, a 114-108 loss to the Phoenix Suns, nearly half of the points it gave up (56) were in the paint.
D'Antoni's hand was forced into the lineup change in this instance because of Steve Blake's elbow injury, which moved Bryant from the starting small forward to the starting point guard and then Johnson plugged in the spot vacated in the front court. D'Antoni made another change, however, benching the floor-spreading Shawne Williams in favor of the paint-packing Hill.
D'Antoni said he still plans to keep Bryant in the 24-28 minute range in part because the Thunder game kicks off a four-games-in-five-nights stretch for L.A. As much as the point guard assignment will be a challenge for Bryant offensively, as he has averaged just 3.5 assists against 5.5 turnovers in his first two games back from his Achilles injury, defense could pose the even bigger problem for him as he will be matched up with Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook "off and on" according to D'Antoni.
"It's asking a lot but he's smart and if you're not on him, then you're on (Kevin) Durant or Jodie has to guard Westbrook," D'Antoni said of the 35-year-old Bryant checking the 25-year-old Westbrook. "I trust Kobe more than the normal person to just figure it out. We'll see. It doesn't mean it's going to stay that way all the time, but Kobe will do a good job. He'll surprise us."
Westbrook is averaging 21.2 points, 6.4 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game after undergoing minor knee surgery during training camp.
D'Antoni said it will be a team effort, beyond Bryant, to try to stop the three-time All-Star.
"If we do what we're supposed to do and close the paint down and make him take contested 2s, that's what we want to do against Westbrook," D'Antoni said. "We want to do the same against everybody. He will get out in transition some so the biggest thing is not turning the ball over, not letting him run."
As for Bryant's individual defense in his short time back, D'Antoni said it's a work in progress.
"Getting there," D'Antoni said. "He's smart. He'll be able to do a lot of things we do, but you still have to have legs, you still have to have all of that. I think he'll work through that and he'll get there."
"Of course we want to win, but we definitely know it's going to be different," said Xavier Henry after L.A.'s 114-108 loss to the Phoenix Suns Tuesday night at Staples Center, their second straight defeat since Bryant's comeback. "Everybody in the world knows it's going to be different."
But (to continue the play on Green's epic meltdown) just because everyone was aware of the challenges that Bryant's return presents, does that mean they should be let off the hook and given a pass to figure things out before any judgment is cast?
Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni saw it coming from a mile away, warning his team and repeating his message time and again to the media that the Lakers would have to do more to help out Bryant in the early going than Bryant would be doing to help them.
"We hoped we would win at home and then maybe have some problems [later]," D'Antoni said. "I'm not out of my mind just because we're struggling. I knew we could, that could happen, it's going to be up to the coaching staff and players to figure this out."
In D'Antoni's ideal scenario, somehow the Lakers will figure out how to master the balance between patient minds and active bodies as Bryant reintegrates himself.
In essence, he's asking for his team to compartmentalize how it welcomes Bryant's presence and how it still can execute the way it did without him for the first month and a half of the season.
It sounds like a tall task and actually stirs up memories of D'Antoni's predecessor on the Lakers' sidelines, Mike Brown, who used to tell his team when it complained about the clunky offense they were running that the solution would be just to play more defense.
LOS ANGELES -- It was a better night for Kobe Bryant individually but another wretched result for the Los Angeles Lakers as a team.
L.A. fell to 0-2 with Bryant in the lineup and 10-11 overall as it couldn't do anything on defense to corral the hot-shooting Phoenix Suns, who made 51.8 percent of their attempts.
The good for Bryant? He led L.A. with 20 points, doubling his output in his debut against Toronto. He shot 5-for-10 from the field and 8-for-8 from the foul line. He cut his turnovers down from eight to three. He added three assists, two rebounds and his first dunk since his comeback.
The bad? L.A. seems to have lost the rhythm it established in his absence as the Lakers have now lost two in a row at home after winning three in a row on the road.
"We have to know the urgency of what's happening," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said before the game. "It's going to be uneven. Our offense, even defensively, we're going to make some mistakes by being unfamiliar with what we're doing or with different lineups. We just can't afford not to be playing at 100 percent completely as hard as we can and know the urgency of it."
Playing hard wasn't the problem Tuesday. Nor was Bryant's performance, even. The problem is L.A., which had been shaping itself as a share everything type of squad for much of the season, is now back in discovery mode.
How it happened: The Suns sped ahead by 14 in the third quarter before the Lakers crept back in it on the back of Jordan Hill (13 points, seven rebounds) and Jodie Meeks (13 points), cutting the lead to five heading into the fourth. Both teams basically exchanged buckets for most of the fourth with Bryant making a couple of sweet scores, but L.A. not getting the necessary stops.
What it means: Growing pains are just as painful when there's a future Hall of Famer like Bryant involved.
Hits: Pau Gasol bounced back with 19 points on 6-for-11 shooting.
Meeks continued his solid shooting, going 5-for-10 in his return to the starting lineup.
Misses: The Lakers came into the game giving up 47.3 points in the paint on average to their opponents, ranking them 29th in the league. They let the Suns score 56.
Nick Young, who came into the game shooting 79.5 percent from the foul line, went just 2-for-6 on free throws.
Robert Sacre went from starting two straight games to not playing.
Stat of the game: L.A. played with its ninth different starting lineup in its 21st game Tuesday.
"Hopefully it goes well," D'Antoni said of the change pregame. "If not, we’ll try something else." The Lakers played much better as a starting unit than they did against Toronto, but Shawne Williams playing only 12 minutes as a starter could be an indicator of yet another shuffle on the horizon.
Up next: The Lakers have the day off Wednesday to rest before their four-game trip that begins Friday through Oklahoma City, Charlotte, Atlanta and Memphis.
Steve Nash, sidelined for the Lakers' last 12 games because of nerve root irritation in his back and hamstrings, may not travel with the team on its upcoming trip through Oklahoma City, Charlotte, Atlanta and Memphis, according to coach Mike D'Antoni.
"I don't know for sure," D'Antoni said before the Lakers played the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday. "We're still in the process of seeing how he feels."
Nash was at Staples Center for the game but made a brisk trip through the locker room without discussing his health before tipoff on his way to go work out, which D'Antoni says is pretty much all the 39-year old does these days.
"He's still trying to get there," D'Antoni said. "He's doing everything possible. He works out 85 times a day and he'll get back as soon as he can."
Not that Nash would play all that much on the trip if he made his return anyway. D'Antoni's policy to save wear and tear on the 18-year veteran has been to only play him on one night out of two when the Lakers play a back-to-back. L.A.'s four games on the trip come on two back-to-backs.
Nash is averaging 6.7 points and 4.8 assists while shooting 26.1 percent from the field in six games this season.
The Lakers' other ailing point guard, Jordan Farmar, will join L.A. on the road but still has "a ways to go" before he is able to play, according to a Lakers spokesman.
Farmar has missed the Lakers last three games after suffering a tear in his left hamstring against the Portland Trail Blazers. Farmar visited Dr. Luga Podesta on Monday to receive an ultrasound on his hamstring, which showed "healing and improvement," according to the team.
While Nash's plans are yet to be determined, Farmar will travel with the team so he can continue to rehabilitate his hamstring with treatment from the Lakers' training staff.
Farmar is averaging 9.2 points and 4.4 assists on the season for the Lakers, improved numbers from the 7.2 points and 1.5 assists he averaged in his last season in L.A. in 2009-10.
He knew at some point that Kobe Bryant would return from the ruptured Achilles tendon. He also knew at some point that return would complicate whatever chemistry and consistency his team had built up in the early weeks of the season.
Sunday night was the beginning of the Lakers learning how to play with Bryant again and Bryant learning how to play with them again.
If Sunday’s 106-94 loss to the Toronto Raptors is any indication, the learning curve will be steep early on.
“Having Kobe back, we’re going to have to find out different solutions and work some things out,” D’Antoni said. “There’s always that possibility that the flow is disrupted and you don’t play well and we obviously didn’t play well. It’s a work in progress and we have to get going.”
There’s no simple solution to the work the Lakers have ahead of them. The group of players that currently surrounds Bryant went through training camp together, played preseason together and played the first 19 games of the regular season together before Bryant made his debut on Sunday.
The question for the Lakers is how long will the adjustment period last, and will the bumps accumulated during that time prevent the Lakers from making the playoffs for only the third time since 1976.
“We have to get through this,” D’Antoni said. “Maybe you lose the skirmish anyway but the battle is bigger. Obviously we’re going to ride Kobe so you might as well get it over with. One game is not going to kill us but we have to get him back as soon as we can.”
There’s no question Bryant struggled in his first game back in eight months. He finished with nine points, eight rebounds, four assists and eight turnovers in 28 minutes. Bryant was struggling so much that D’Antoni wasn’t sure whether to bring him back in the fourth quarter. When asked if he considered not having Bryant finish the game, D’Antoni sighed and smiled, “I wanted to live a little bit.”
Bryant will be the first to admit he’s nowhere near where he wants to be, needs to be and ultimately believes he will be, but until that time comes, the success of the Lakers will largely depend on how quickly he adjusts to his teammates and how much they can help him make that adjustment.
“He is human,” D’Antoni said. “I think we have to understand it’s going take a little while. It’s going to be painful at first but the biggest thing is getting everybody else to step up and take care of him and we did not do that tonight.”
While adjusting is a two-way street, Bryant said the onus is on him to work his way back into the team as smoothly as possible.
“It’s more me adjusting because I just got to get used to the timing of the game and the speed of the game and where those lanes are and how quickly they close down and getting them the ball at the right time,” Bryant said. “We’re just out of sync. I’m throwing the ball to a certain spot and they’re [not there] so it’s getting used to that rhythm. The adjustment is really for me to deliver the ball in areas where they can be effective.
“My rhythm is completely out of sync in terms of being able to read passing lanes and judge the timing of players in between those lanes and so forth.”
Most of the focus will be on Bryant but how his teammates adjust to playing with him is just as important as how he adjusts to playing with them. Players like Nick Young, Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson, who have never played with Bryant can’t always defer to him and risk becoming spectators on the court. It was an issue D’Antoni stressed to his young players before the game.
“The biggest thing we have to guard against is standing around and watching him play,” D’Antoni said. “It’s like sometimes when you go to an all-star game and you’re with someone haven’t played with and you sit there and watch them and you don’t really get it into. We can’t afford to have Nick Young take a step backwards and Wesley Johnson. They’ve got to take a step forward and bring their egos to the game. They’re good players and they can’t take a back seat to anybody.”
But everyone takes a back seat to Bryant, of course. It’s hard not to think so when Bryant received a separate pregame introduction, complete with special lighting and Star Wars music, before the game. Bryant is the face of the Lakers and it’s going to be hard for some of the young first-year Lakers players not to be a little awe-struck playing alongside him.
“Sometimes I don’t believe I’m on the court with Kobe,” Young said. “He has the ball so much and he demands the ball so much as Kobe Bryant and sometimes you can catch yourself watching him on the floor. We just got to be out there and go with him. Sometimes we’ll bring it up and sometimes he’ll bring it up, we can’t just defer to him every time.”
That was easier said than done for Young, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, and has been watching Bryant since he made his NBA debut when Young was 11 years old.
“It’s my first time out there with him so I deferred to him a lot,” Young said. “I looked for him a lot because he’s out there on the court and that’s what the fans wanted. The whole thing was about Kobe tonight so I got caught up in the moment.”
It may have been about Bryant on Sunday but it can’t always be about him moving forward if the Lakers are going to do anything more significant this season than selling out arenas and pushing new merchandise.
“It’s Kobe Bryant so we’re trying to find our way,” Henry said. “We don’t have it all down yet and guys were just trying to play off Kobe and see what we got and it got a little stagnant but we can fix it.”
How long it takes the Lakers to fix it and adjust to life with Bryant will go a long way in how good the Lakers can be this season. Bryant, who has grown impatient after having not played for the past eight months is hoping the Lakers can figure it out before their next home game.
“The magic is being able to adjust to what’s going on, on the fly,” Bryant said. “That requires rhythm and that requires being on the same page with your guys in terms of pinpointing passes and things of that nature. It will take some time. Hopefully sooner rather than later . . . like Tuesday.”