- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN.com
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Kobe Bryant continued to inch closer to a return, practicing at full speed in five-on-five drills for the first time Tuesday and saying he could see himself returning to game action for the Los Angeles Lakers by the end of the month.
"Yeah, yeah I can," Bryant said when asked if it was possible he might return in one of the team's five remaining games in November.
Bryant has been out since rupturing his Achilles tendon April 12. While Bryant and Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni stressed that he's not back to 100 percent and there are "areas where it still needs to get stronger," both noted they've been "pleasantly surprised" by how well the guard seems to have responded to the escalation in activity since he was cleared to resume all basketball activities Saturday.
"I wouldn't say 'limitations,'" Bryant said. "I think there's areas where it still needs to get stronger in terms of the jumping and being able to plant quickly and change directions and things like that. Those are areas where you just have to get stronger ... but I could adjust my game and play at a pretty high level right now."
D'Antoni repeatedly stressed that the Lakers intend to be cautious with Bryant, but also noted that he was "surprised" at how good he looked in practice Tuesday.
"He hasn't played since April but he looks pretty good," D'Antoni said. "I don't know why that surprises me, but it does. He was up and down pretty good. A little rusty here and there, but good."
When asked if he noticed any of Bryant's teammates taking it easy on him, or if he was worried about pushing Bryant too hard, D'Antoni laughed and said, "No. They better beat him up while they can because after he gets back they won't be able to."
The Lakers (5-7) could use Bryant's scoring ability in general and especially late in games. Fellow shooting guard Jodie Meeks is the team's leading scorer at 13.7 points a game, by far the lowest team scoring leader in the NBA. The question is how long it will take Bryant to step back into that role once he returns.
"I don't know, we'll see," he said. "It's always different when you get out on the practice floor and when the game actually starts. It remains to be seen. I don't know.
"My responsibility is to make life easier for my teammates. That's my job and that's [Pau Gasol's], job to command double-teams, command load defenses where we can get some guys some open looks and high percentage opportunities. If I can step out on the floor and do that, that's an accomplishment."
Bryant said he's working to modify his game and compensate for the things he can't yet do.
"There's certain things that I used to do that I can't do now," Bryant said. "I won't try to do them. You've got to figure out other ways.
"I just got to go with the flow and just react. If you have limitations, you have to be honest with yourself and self-assess. If you have those limitations, you have to figure out a way to be effective around those. You can't be stubborn about it."
D'Antoni repeatedly stressed he felt Bryant "needs a few more steps" and that caution should be exercised in how the Lakers handle his return. But he also conceded the final decision on when Bryant would return would be made by Bryant and Lakers trainer Gary Vitti. D'Antoni may not even be privy to the decision until the last moment.
The Lakers play Friday against Golden State, the team Bryant was initially injured against. They host Sacramento on Sunday before leaving on a weeklong trip through Washington, Brooklyn and Detroit. They host Portland on Sunday, Dec. 1, then have nearly a week off before traveling to Sacramento on Dec. 6.
"Do you know Kobe? You can guess whose decision that will be," D'Antoni joked.
When asked if he could see Bryant playing Friday, D'Antoni said, "That would surprise me."
When asked if it was impossible for Bryant to play Friday, D'Antoni said, "That would be, well, nothing is impossible, but that would surprise me."
"I don't know when the surprise goes," D'Antoni said. "We have to urge caution. It's going to be a little bit."
Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant continued to inch closer to a return, practicing at full speed in five-on-five drills for the first time Tuesday and saying he could see himself returning to game action by the end of the month.