- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- When Kobe Bryant wasn't moonlighting as the Masked Mamba in the three Los Angeles Lakers wins since he suffered a nasal fracture, concussion and sore neck in the All-Star Game, it had been a pretty somber week full of, quite literally, dark days.
"The past whatever days, it's just been quiet, lights off, that sort of thing," Bryant said after scoring 33 points in the Lakers' 93-83 win over the Miami Heat on Sunday. "It's just kind of letting it bring rest as much as possible. In terms of injuries, this has been the one that I've really had to adjust my lifestyle to."
For the guy who flew to Germany twice in the offseason during his downtime to take care of a knee and an ankle that had been atrophied from years of wear and tear; who practiced with a hard cast covering his fractured left wrist as a rookie; who once put his massage therapist on a redeye flight from Santa Monica to Dallas to adjust his ailing back so he could play that night, Bryant's lifestyle adjustment comment is saying something.
This season has been all about adjustments for Bryant. He adjusted the form on his shot when dealing with a torn ligament in his right wrist, the one that controls his shooting hand. He adjusted to Mike Brown and his new coaching staff after so many years with Phil Jackson. He adjusted to a 24-year-old Andrew Bynum blossoming into a ready-for-primetime player and helped him grow in that role. On top of all that, he's adjusted to a compressed schedule because of the lockout.
He's doing it not so much as a chore, but rather as a necessity. If Bryant is going to reach his stated goal of adding a sixth ring to his championship collection, he's going to have to do more than he's ever done before. The Lakers aren't the favorites like they have been in all five years when Bryant lifted the Larry O'Brien trophy up at the end of the season. That distinction goes to Miami, or Chicago, or Oklahoma City this season.
It's not preordained that Bryant will add that extra championship to his legacy, the one he claims he's "obsessed" with attaining. The odds are against it occurring, in actuality. But Kobe's determined to drag this team as far as it can go. Wrist, nose, whatever else.
"He told me about getting a ring, yeah, on a couple occasions," Brown said after the Lakers held Miami to 37.5 percent shooting Sunday, resulting in the Heat failing to top the 90-point plateau for just the fourth time in the 37 games they've played this season. "I know how he feels, which is great to be a part of, when you have someone with that much desire."
Part of his desire has manifested itself in Bryant, as a 33-year-old, 16-year veteran, leading the league in scoring with a 28.9 points per game average -- pouring in points as a crutch for the Lakers' offense to lean on as Brown implemented his new system -- but it's also shown just as much in his actions and words off the court. He publicly pumped up Bynum and complimented his development, knowing that he would need the young center to be more Shaq and less Kwame if the Lakers' playoff journey is to end in June. He publicly backed Pau Gasol, declaring that he didn't want him traded and demanding that management stop allowing the Spaniard to twist in the wind. He made a point to reiterate Derek Fisher's value by detailing the timely team meeting Fish called, when Bryant would normally keep that private. He continues to endorse Brown, even calling Brown's recent loosening of the reins on offense "part of a great coach" after the Miami win.
"When your best player feels that way and he has that type of drive, it rubs off on other players," Brown said. "I think it's a good thing."
He's pushed when he's needed to push and pulled when he's needed to pull, and the Lakers have seemingly pulled together because of it, winners of eight of their past 10 games and owners of the third most wins in the Western Conference.
"It's just understanding what our strengths are and just playing to that," Bryant said after pushing his scoring average to 34.0 points on 54.3 percent shooting in his three games since donning the mask. "The real testament for any championship team is to understand what your weaknesses are and to cover those, protect those and understand what your strengths are and play to those. I feel like we're starting to understand how to support each other in that department."
Bryant called last season a "wasted year of my life" as he lost out on a chance for that coveted sixth ring. The lockout, the failed Chris Paul trade and the Brown-for-Jackson coaching change all threatened to waste the Lakers' title aspirations before a game was even played.
Yet it's early March and talk of this Lakers group coming together for one more championship run doesn't sound as mad as it did just a month ago.
"To be honest, I don't know, don't care," Bryant said when asked if a major move would be coming before the March 15 trade deadline. "We have to keep trucking along and just staying focused on the course. That's one of the conversations that we had when Fish addressed the team a week ago, a couple a weeks ago, whatever it was. It was just have to focus on what we do and being the best that we can with the group that we have and just stay locked in on that."
Bryant's been doing whatever he can to keep this Lakers season from running off the tracks and he's starting to see a hint of the light at the end of the tunnel that's been hidden by those dark days.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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