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|Kobe Bryant was back in the spotlight, ready to spring into action after summer knee surgery.|
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The Lakers now have Steve Blake and Matt Barnes, two players who fill offensive and defensive needs in addition to bringing in ringless players who can infuse the back-to-back champions with extra motivation ... which would be a perfectly legitimate storyline if the Lakers didn't have Kobe Bryant.
"Just speaking with Kobe, I don't think he needs any motivation," Blake said. "His mind is set on winning again."
When Barnes entered the Lakers' locker room for the first time he heard Bryant in a heated conversation with Ron Artest, talking about getting over screens and locking up in man-to-man defense, a discussion that might seem more appropriate for a playoff game timeout than a leisurely summer day.
"If he's that hungry, I'm starving," said Barnes, who has landed on his eighth team in his quest to join a winner. "I don't think the mentality of the team is to sit back and get fat."
That's because the mentality of this team is dictated by Bryant, who still appears lean after 14 NBA seasons and five championships. As the challenges -- whether he can win a championship, whether he can win one without Shaq, whether he can beat the Celtics -- keep falling to the side, the drive hasn't gone anywhere.
"I don't have to search for motivation or anything like that," Bryant said. "I want to make sure us as a team, we're moving in that direction. You don't have to search for anything. The motivation is there. We're here to win. Simple as that."
|Former foe Matt Barnes seems hungry to join forces with Kobe's Lakers this season.|
Complacency won't be an issue for him. Physical capability is another story. Bryant had surgery on his right knee over the summer, the third time the knee has been carved up since 2003. We've seen a noticeable decrease in his explosiveness the past couple of seasons, and if you want to see him dunk you'd be best served by digging up YouTube clips from when he wore an Afro and jersey No. 8.
We haven't seen him play since the latest surgery, so for now all we have to go on are his words: "I got my knee taken care of. That feels, uh, feels strong."
He declined to let a surgeon fix the fracture in his right index finger because he thought the amount of time he'd miss to recover was too much for an injury he learned to play with. He said he won't wear the bulky sleeve we saw on the finger last season, relying merely on a tape wrap because it affords him a better feel for the ball and smoother follow-through on his shot.
"The finger, it is what it is," Bryant said. "I can get whacked on it, it's going to hurt for a minute or so, and then it's going to go away. It's not going to be any worse than it was last year."
We're all aware of Kobe's high pain threshold and ability to adjust his game to physical ailments. The eyebrows raised by his 30 percent shooting in the final three games of the 2009-10 regular season were quickly lowered by a string of six consecutive 30-point games in the playoffs, thanks in part to the Bat-signaled return of his former trainer Tim Grover. Yes, he still had it, and he retained his status as the reigning king while taking one step closer to equaling Michael Jordan in the category that matters most: six championships.
He says, "It has nothing to do with Michael, it would be special to win again," which is a claim you can take about as seriously as his pre-Finals insistence that playing the Celtics had no added significance to him. Still, with Bryant it's not about how much the peripheral storylines can enhance a championship. It's about how nothing seems able to diminish his desire.
I don't really need any outside motivation to get me going. I'm just wired that way. I'm here. I'm here to win, I'm here to focus and do my job. That's what I'm going to do.” -- Kobe Bryant
Even Jordan, as voracious a competitor as we've seen, didn't bother to stick around for a run at a fourth consecutive championship either time. In both cases there were extenuating circumstances (including the murder of his father in 1993 and the lockout and management's insistence on dismantling the Bulls in 1998), but the end result was Jordan found factors that outweighed his drive to win again. It's hard to imagine anything meaning more to Bryant than the chance to get another championship.
"I love competing, I love playing, I love working," Bryant said. "I don't really need any outside motivation to get me going. I'm just wired that way. I'm here. I'm here to win, I'm here to focus and do my job. That's what I'm going to do."
One day he physically won't be able to do it anymore. That's why, as much as the New Day Co-op in Miami and the up-and-coming Thunder in Oklahoma City, the ability of a 32-year-old Bryant to fend off the effects of age and more than 1,200 regular-season and playoff games will be one of the top storylines of the season.
Winning another championship would entail the Lakers reaching the NBA Finals for a fourth consecutive season, a feat that hasn't been accomplished since the 1980s, when the Lakers did it from 1982 to 1985 and the Celtics did it in 1984-87.
Over the past three years the Lakers have logged 67 postseason games. By comparison their 1980s counterparts played in 48 playoff games from 1982-84. The difference of 19 games is practically another postseason in itself -- it happens to be the exact number of games the 1985 Lakers required to reach the NBA Finals and beat the Celtics.
The 1984-87 Celtics had 85 postseason games. If the Lakers swept all four series next spring it would take them to 83, so in all likelihood another championship would require them playing more postseason games in a four-year stretch than any previous NBA team.
You can also add in the summers spent in international competition for Kobe, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. Bryant took this summer off and didn't appear weary at the Lakers' media day Saturday. He seemed unconcerned with what they're saying or doing in Miami, not distracted by anything other than his mission. Having successfully three-peated once before (and having learned from the master himself, Phil Jackson), Bryant knows the formula.
"It takes luck, in terms of health, not having serious injuries," Bryant said. "I had a lot of injuries last year, but it was nothing that was serious enough to make me miss the playoffs. Other than that it's execution, it's camaraderie, it's focusing on the right things. And get it done."
That's what's relevant to him now. Not the previous two championships, not the grueling Game 7. He hasn't watched it again and doesn't plan to. It's all about the next one, all about the appetite.
"It's a brand new season, a brand new start," Bryant said. "The hunger will be there."
With everything from the Heat's functionality to Kobe's own productivity still to be determined, that's the one certainty in the NBA.