Friday, December 30, 2011
Kobe Bryant setting tone for Lakers
By Ramona Shelburne
LOS ANGELES -- The list of things that have gone wrong for the Los Angeles Lakers this season is too long to comprehend. Their grievances are too raw and real still to acknowledge, much less dwell on.
The vetoed Chris Paul trade, which will affect this franchise for years to come. The hellacious schedule the NBA started them off with: six games in their first eight nights and making them the first team to play a dreaded back-to-back-to-back series while star center Andrew Bynum served a four-game suspension.
Then there were the unlucky things, like Kobe Bryant's wrist and ankle injuries during training camp.
The Lakers and Bryant have everything to be upset about right now, but no time to do so.
Not that Bryant would have let them, anyway. This season means too much to him to make excuses. All the seasons he has left in the league do. He's chasing history now, not glory.
You already knew he would play through whatever injury he had. But a month ago you weren't sure he'd even be a good soldier for new coach Mike Brown, whom the team had insultingly hired without consulting Bryant.
Instead he's been a leader.
"Kobe has just set the tone for us," Brown said, as we walked away from his postgame press conference following the Lakers 99-82 win over the New York Knicks on Thursday night. "He's done everything I could've asked for."
You could sense gratitude in his words. That Brown understood he hadn't fully earned this loyalty from Bryant yet but was being given the benefit of the doubt anyway.
He's the coach of this team and he's shown that he's not afraid to coach Bryant or even call him out publicly. But he also knows who he's coaching and what it means for Bryant to be treating him this way.
As we walked from the press room together, Brown was still amped from the game. He'd left his suit jacket in his dressing room and come into the room in a ruffled, sweat-stained, pink shirt. This might have looked like an easy Lakers win, but this team is going to have to work for everything it gets this season.
Once again the Lakers won with a relentless defensive effort. They held the normally high-scoring Knicks to 82 points on 31.3 percent shooting from the field. The only thing that kept the Knicks in it was the 34 free throws (on 41 attempts) that they made.
Bryant played his best game of the season, scoring 28 points on 10-for-17 shooting in 34 minutes. He also had six assists and four rebounds.
But his impact on the game and this team so far can't be measured just by statistics.
He hasn't said a lot publicly, but that's kind of the point. In a season that began by leaving everyone speechless -- following the NBA's inexplicable decision to veto the Lakers trade for then New Orleans Hornets guard Chris Paul -- no words were going to make anything better.
Only resolve matters. Which is exactly what Bryant has shown as he's dealt with both the Lakers off-the-court turmoil and his painful wrist and ankle injuries.
Sore after the back-to-back-to-back series? Take a look at Bryant's swollen right wrist.
Tired? Injured? Upset with your role or how this season has gone? Frustrated with David Stern? Go complain to Kobe and see how far it gets you.
Brown likes to put himself down for talking too much or being long-winded. But he's smart enough to know he doesn't need to say much when his captain sets that kind of a tone.
"Being around this game as long as I have at this level, there's nothing tougher than that peer pressure," Brown said of the effect Bryant's toughness has on his teammates.
"Every guy makes a lot of money, especially on this team. A lot of guys have won. You're in L.A. so you get a lot of people loving you and stuff like that. The only thing you want to be able to do is walk around with your head held high amongst your peers.
"So when you have a guy like Kobe Bryant who suffered the ankle injury a couple weeks ago and just went and tied his shoe up, came back out on the court and finished practice. Who falls on his wrist twice and walks into practice the next day and his hand looks like he's got one of those medical gloves on it and it's blown up, and then he's out there shooting left-handed, playing D and he's talking.
"That's hard for anybody. That's hard for anybody who gets nicked up or bumped up to walk off that court. That's a lot of pressure."
Brown laughed and then left it at that.
The Lakers have another game at Staples Center Saturday against the Nuggets, and then another Sunday in Denver. There won't be much time for reflection this season. There definitely isn't time to catch a breath.
Three weeks have gone by since the NBA killed the deal for Paul.
"It feels like a year ago," Bryant said dryly before the game. "But it's been good to get back to work. To focus in on what we have to focus on, which is the task at hand."
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLA.com.