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Person of Interest: Kobe Bryant

Stuck with an aging roster, and just 10,000 points shy of Kareem's record, what exactly is Kobe playing for?

Let’s start with a couple predictions: Kobe Bryant will win the scoring title this year. The Lakers will finish somewhere in the bottom half of the Western Conference’s eight playoff teams.

This is not a statement about selfishness or the need to subsume individual goals or some invective about the proper way to build a team. I don’t even mean to imply that leading the league in scoring is something Kobe Bryant really wants to do — at this point in his career, he certainly knows that scoring a ton of points on a losing team doesn’t mean all that much. Still, Kobe’s 2011-12 has started to look a lot like his 2005-06, when he scored a career high 35.4 points per game and shot a staggering 2,173 field goal attempts.1 That Lakers team, which featured Chris Mihm, Smush Parker, Brian Cook, and Kwame Brown in prominent roles, won 45 games and took a 3-1 lead over Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs. What transpired over the next three games of that series helped cement Kobe’s current legacy as a sometimes selfish, sometimes great, always enigmatic, and oft-disliked superstar. In Games 3, 4 and 5, at the behest of Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant tried to take on the role of “Kobe Bryant: Facilitator.” In those games, Kobe shot, on average, 10 times less than he had in the regular season. In an overtime loss in Game 6 in the Staples Center, he made 20 of 35 shots on his way to 50 points, but the Lakers lost in overtime to the Suns. In the second half of Game 7, Bryant put on one of the strangest displays in the history of the league — he shot only three times, scored one point, and played with an almost ironic distance, as if to say, Here, Phil. This is what it looks like when Kobe “facilitates.” After the game, Kobe, justifiably or not, fully grew into his role as basketball’s pariah. Bill Plaschke, the longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, called him “selfish, stupid.” Charles Barkley openly accused Kobe of tanking the game. His remarkable season, which included twenty-seven 40-plus-point games, was recast: What could have been a superhuman story about an embattled star who carried his team to victory became a statistical testament to the selfishness of a megalomaniacal ball hog who “just didn’t get it.”

Over the next four years, Kobe and Phil came to a winning compromise between Kobe Bryant: Offensive Genius and Kobe Bryant: Facilitator. Two championships later, Kobe finds himself in a familiar place. As happened in 2005-06, when the media openly wondered if he could win without Shaq, this season opened to widespread doubt. The Chris Paul-Dwight Howard transfusion that would have made the Lakers the prohibitive favorite to meet the Miami Heat in the Finals was aborted, Lamar Odom was traded, Pau Gasol whined, and Ron Artest finalized his slide into a cuddly sort of obscurity by changing his name to Metta World Peace. After Kobe hurt his wrist in an opening preseason loss to the newly unveiled CP3-Blake machine, the Clipper revolution talk around Los Angeles intensified. These Lakers started the season with two losses to the Bulls and the Kings. Since then, they have gone 9-3. Over that stretch, Kobe has had seven games in which he has shot the ball 28 times or more. The Lakers are 5-2 in those games.

As Kobe has gone on his tear, the rest of the Lake Show has fallen flat. The team boasts the fifth-worst turnover ratio in the league. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum have both shown flashes of dominance, but with no firm commitment from management about either of their futures, the Laker big men still feel like placeholders for Dwight Howard. Gasol has very publicly decried the nixed trade that would have brought Chris Paul to the bigger locker room at Staples Center and then very publicly said everything was fine. Strangely, the ongoing drama has deflected attention away from the growing evidence that Pau Gasol is no longer the player who dominated the Celtics in the 2010 Finals. Bynum remains a giant enigma — his numbers are up across the board, but he has developed a tendency to start strong in the first quarter and then play erratically for the rest of the game. The fact that Bynum tends to disappear around the same time Kobe starts jacking up shots should not be lost on Lakers fans, especially those who remain convinced that Dwight Howard will be coming to Los Angeles. Another very public big man once decided he could not coexist with a shoot-all-day Kobe.

What I’m asking is this: Is there any difference between 2012 Kobe Bryant and 2006 Kobe Bryant? Did the two championships change the way he approached basketball? Or were they the product of an exhausting, brutal effort by Phil Jackson to jam Kobe Bryant, offensive genius, into something resembling a team game?

A week after hanging 62 in three quarters against Dallas back in 2006, Kobe ripped off a stretch of 45-, 48-, 50-, 45-, and 41-point games. In three of those five games, he shot under 45 percent from the field. Two weeks later, Bryant dropped 51 in a loss against the Kings, and then took a game off by scoring 37 in a loss to the Suns before putting up 81 against the Raptors at Staples Center. That season would see two other four-game stretches where Bryant went over 40 in each game. In six separate games during that 2005-06 season, he went for 50 or more. He shot 45 percent from the field, put up 27.2 field goal attempts per game, hit 34 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, and logged a usage rate of 38.7 percent, the highest measured rate in NBA history. (Usage rate is the estimate of the percentage of a team’s possessions a player will “use” while he is on the court.) Somewhat surprisingly, Kobe has only led the league in usage rate twice in his career. He did it in 2006 and he did it again last year when — coincidentally or not — Pau Gasol had one of his worst seasons, the Lakers lost in the second round of the playoffs, and Phil Jackson rode off into the friscalating dusklight.

Through the first 14 games this season, Bryant’s usage rate clocked in at an astronomical 39.9 percent. He’s shooting more than he did in 2005-06. Last week, in consecutive games against the Suns and the Jazz, Kobe scored over 40 points. Because Los Angeles is a Kobe town, talk fired up around the usual channels that Kobe might be gunning for another run of 40-plus point games. He had just dropped yet another reference to being voted the “seventh best player in the NBA” by a panel of ESPN experts. The Clippers had just edged out the Heat in overtime, drawing attention away from Kobe’s remarkable start to the season. What better way to climb back up on his throne as King of Los Angeles than to hang 40 on the Cavs and then 50 on the Clippers?

And because I have never witnessed a 50-point game in person, I walked out of the Grantland offices, crossed Chick Hearn Court, and went to go watch Kobe putting in work.

Kobe Bryant

Day One: Cavs at Lakers

Early on, it looks like the Lakers want to establish Andrew Bynum. After putting up a promising stretch of double-doubles, Bynum has mostly disappeared during the last two games. Outside of their two 7-footers, the Lakers have absolutely no size. Or scoring, for that matter. Because the conventional wisdom states that (a) Kobe can’t keep this up, (b) he really shouldn’t, and (c) because a trade for Dwight Howard won’t be happening in the near future, the Lakers need Bynum to pick up some of the scoring slack.

First Quarter

7:00: Kobe moves a bit like Pernell Whitaker, the great defensive boxer who, like Floyd Mayweather, was never in a hurry until he decided to get in a hurry. When Sweet Pea did get in a hurry, what was going to happen probably had already happened. Like Whitaker, Kobe moves with the illusion of slowness — no great player has ever jogged so nonchalantly up and down the court. When he catches the ball, he quickly runs through a series of evasive movements — head fakes, jab steps, pivots. The ball moves on its own separate axis — first it’s up over his head, then at his hip, then pressed up against the floor. As he goes through these motions, Kobe’s opponent is always within measure. Whitaker could decipher his opponent’s every feint, every flinch. Kobe, who plays most of the quarter with Anthony Parker up in his chest, has that same preternatural gift for reading his defender.

6:13: Kobe slices back across the lane with the ball and buries a fadeaway from 18 feet. The difficulty of the shot that now makes up more than half of his offensive repertoire can’t be overstated. He doesn’t get the lift he used to get and he’s certainly lost his first step. Instead, Kobe now squares up to the hoop with such authority that defenders instinctively take a step back. It’s an amazing thing to watch in person — you can almost see the memory of a younger Kobe running through the minds of the defenders.

4:26: Kobe’s oversize jersey has been a constant source of confusion for me this year. He’s wearing it three sizes too big. What’s he hiding under there? Asbestos?

Second Quarter
A shot-by-shot analysis.

6:52: Kobe takes three shots, misses two, and hits the third. Outside of a cherry-picked dunk, every basket he’s scored tonight has been on a 15- to 18-foot jumper.

5:12: Kobe catches the ball at the top of the arc, jab-steps twice, moves Parker to his left, and rises up again for what, at first, is called a 3-pointer (later amended). I have no idea what Anthony Parker is thinking — Kobe’s driven to the basket exactly once in this game, and that was on a fast break.

4:35: Kobe, from the wing, gives Parker the same exact move and buries a 3-pointer. I consider turning around and starting a “CANDACE … CANDACE …” chant. But then I remember that I hate the Lakers.

3:15: With Parker draped all over him in the corner, Kobe, once again with a boxer’s slow-quickness, clears away space with his elbows and knocks down a line-drive 3-pointer.

1:16: Kobe knocks down yet another 3-pointer from the wing. He’s 9-13 from the floor, 3-4 from beyond the arc. The underbite is starting to peek out and he’s hopping around on the balls of his feet.

Kobe ends with 24 in the first half, well on the way to 40. Save the one cherry-picked dunk, every made field goal was more or less the same. Kobe squared up, cleared space, and shot over his defender.

Third Quarter

6:41: Certain things have to be seen up close. Derek Fisher’s defense is one of them. Even when he’s two steps in front of Kyrie Irving, he’s really two steps behind. Kobe hasn’t scored yet in this quarter and has only taken one shot. The Cavs are throwing two, three guys at him. A 19-point halftime lead has been shaved down to 10.

5:38: Kobe drives, jump-stops in the lane, and shot-puts a runner with three guys in his face. The double-teams are definitely messing with his timing. He keeps forcing up shots and is clearly getting a bit frustrated. Bynum can’t get anything going, either — after a quick start, he’s disappeared. Right now, it’s Kobe and four guys standing around waiting to get the ball to him.

2:24: Kobe scores on a layup and gets fouled. The team’s offense has completely bogged down. The crowd seems to only be cheering on Kobe’s point total. Kobe obliges by taking shots on three of the last four Laker possessions. He knocks down two of those three and ends the quarter with 35.

Fourth Quarter

Kobe sits out the start of the fourth. There is a quiet way to score 25 points in an NBA game — Antawn Jamison, who is playing tonight for the Cavs, made a career out of it. But there’s no quiet way to score 35. This seems obvious, but there’s a remarkable difference between 25 and 35, at least in terms of how much of the offense goes through your hands.

With 8:49 left in the fourth quarter, Ramon Sessions runs past Darius Morris for an easy layup. The Lakers’ lead has been cut down to six. Mike Brown calls a timeout. As the Laker Girls dance in black Verizon Wireless T-shirts to Beyoncé, fans start screaming at Kobe to get back in the game.

He complies with the request. Strangely, once Kobe checks back into the game, the crowd starts chanting, “We want World Peace.”

7:57: Matt Barnes launches a hideous 3-point shot and the Lakers get beat down the court again. I have three torn ligaments in my knee and have been sitting in an office in downtown L.A. for the past seven months and I think I might be able to get past Fisher. When watching this team, who wouldn’t sympathize with Kobe? Dropping 40 or 50 is within his control. Everything else about the Lakers is slow, old, and/or chaotic. Bynum has been outplayed by Semih Erden in the second half. Troy Murphy looks like a hung-over ringer for the Morgan Stanley team in the Urban Professionals League.

During the TV timeout, the PA plays “What I Like About You,” and the JumboTron pans over to Adam Sandler sitting next to Jack Nicholson. The crowd so far has cheered wildly for four things — Kiss Cam, every made Kobe basket, Jack Nicholson, and Adam Sandler.

3:19: A well-known sports personality runs over to press row and takes a seat. Kobe has 38 points right now. These two must be related.

2:54: Kobe hits a turnaround to get to 40. The crowd erupts. A handful of media members walk toward the tunnels.

Make no mistake, Kobe tried to get to 40. Once the 3-pointers started falling in the second quarter, the flow of the Lakers offense shifted from the big men to Bryant. The energy in Staples lasered directly in on Kobe’s point total. After every made basket, the crowd, in unison, would look up at the JumboTron to check the number next to no. 24. Early in the first quarter, Kobe kept feeding the ball down into the post. Bynum, as a result, started the game 6-6 from the field. He would go 1-3 for the rest of the game. Behind Kobe’s second-quarter shooting barrage, the Lakers built an 18-point halftime lead. When Kobe began struggling with double-teams in the third quarter, the Cavs got right back into the game

Kyrie Irving

Day Two: Clippers at Lakers

Staples has its daily face-lift. The purple-and-gold floor has made way for red and blue. In previous years, around 70 percent of the crowd would have been dressed in purple and gold. This year, around 60 percent of the crowd wears Clipper red. This will be the first night the Clippers unveil their new laser show. A dry ice haze hovers over the court at tip-off. The fans in red still haven’t quite figured out whom to anoint as their team’s superstar. For now, Blake Griffin receives the louder reception.

First Quarter

9:33: Blake Griffin still has no idea how to play against a bigger defender. In the first preseason game, he couldn’t figure out how to get around Pau Gasol. Blake scores four of the Clippers’ first six points, but the baskets come on a difficult baby hook and a 15-foot jump shot. Right now, it seems like the best way to defend him in the half court is to take a big guy and have him play off of him. Blake’s post moves are still robotic and predictable, and any decent defender should be able to block off his lanes to the rim.

In the open court, however, you’re mostly helpless against Blake Griffin. Just get the hell out of the way.

8:28: Kobe misses a pull-up 3-pointer. He’s still in mamba mode, but his opponent tonight, Caron “Tuff Juice” Butler, has played with and against Kobe for years and knows all of his tendencies. Unlike Anthony Parker, who flinched at every jab step, Tuff Juice keeps his feet planted.

7:46: The Lakers dribble the ball around for 20 seconds before hitting Bynum in the low post. He misses a short jumper. The Clips run quickly back up the court and find Chauncey Billups for a wide-open 3-pointer. The difference in team speed is immediately apparent. The Clippers get out and run while the Lakers slog their way through offensive sets, not quite knowing if Kobe’s going to pull the trigger or if he’s going to jump and wildly pass the ball into the post.

5:54: On a delayed break, Kobe backs down Billups, shakes to his left, and then spins right for an easy bucket. The Clippers have been playing Kobe tight, daring him to drive to the hoop. They’re also throwing their entire team at him — four different defenders have guarded Kobe in the opening six minutes.

4:30: Chris Paul dribbles for 10 seconds, goes around Darius Morris, and gets to the rim for a layup. When watching Paul up-close, pay close attention to his hands while he dribbles the ball. Every dribble is a bit different — he palms the ball, he feints left, goes right. All this subtle movement puts the defender in a trance — Paul’s not the quickest guy in the league, but he’s the most creative dribbler I’ve ever seen in person.

2:49: Kobe misses yet another open 18-footer. The methodical face-up game that buried the Cavs has been shelved in favor of quick-release jumpers. He’s already adjusted to Butler’s adjustments. The shots just aren’t going down.

2:24: An attempt by the Clippers PA guy to fire up the crowd and claim Staples as a “Clippers arena” falls flat. They need to hire that dude who does Pistons games. Or somehow fire up Kiss Cam a couple quarters early. The crowd has mostly settled down.

1:15: Pau throws an attempted lob to Kobe, who can’t get his elbows above the rim. He catches the ball instead, comes down, pump fakes, and lays it in. Down on the other side of the court, Griffin attempts an absurd dunk over three defenders. It clangs off the back of the rim.

0:12.3: After the whistle, Darius Morris goes up for a dunk. While he’s in the air, Blake hits him in the ribs with his forearms. Josh McRoberts comes running across the court to confront Blake, but there’s no real threat of violence. But Mike Brown goes absolutely apeshit and has to be restrained by his coaching staff. The Lakers contingent in the crowd wakes up. For the rest of the game, they will control Staples.

0:1.7: Chris Paul humiliates Darius Morris and scores a layup with the foul. If I had to pick one basketball player to turn into a boxer, it would be Chris Paul. He might be pound-for-pound the strongest player in the league. After he hits his free throw, though, Darius Morris launches a half-court shot at the buzzer that goes in. Again, the Lakers contingent gets much louder than their Clipper counterparts. They even boo the Clipper trampoline dunk team.

Second Quarter
Kobe and Bynum sit out. Gasol, Jason Kopono, Metta World Peace, Josh McRoberts, and Morris are the Lakers five. Predictably, the Lakers go to Gasol on every possession. He dwarfs Griffin and scores easily. Again, if there’s a flaw in Blake’s game, it’s that he doesn’t quite look comfortable in half-court sets. This also applies to the defensive end, where he oftentimes gets pushed too deep into the paint. Gasol could score 20 in the quarter if the Lakers had a point guard who could either run a 5.0 40-yard dash or wasn’t just drafted in the second round of one of the worst NBA drafts in recent memory. Del Negro quickly subs in DeAndre Jordan to guard Gasol.

8:22: With Kobe out of the game, the crowd is dead. He checks back into the game with the Lakers down 35-30. Fatigue might be setting in for Kobe, who has played 122 minutes over the past four nights. He just doesn’t have the same lift on his jump shot. With 7:20 left in the second, he’s a tired 2-for-9 from the floor. Still, he manages to draw a foul with 6:49 left in the quarter. The MVP chant echoes through the Staples Center.

5:51: One of the Clippers girls looks almost exactly like Kirsten Dunst.

4:08: The Clippers have played eight games this year. The Lakers have played 13. The Lakers have been missing layups and easy buckets in the paint. I write in my notes: “Kobe for 35 in the second half only way Lakers can win this game.” I wonder if Kobe has written the same thing in his brain.

2:13: Tuff Juice Butler continues his solid defense. He hunches down, spreads his arms, ready to jump up and contest the inevitable jump shot. This seems to be the most logical way to guard Bryant — if, like last night, he torches you for 42, then so be it. But a contested 18-foot jump shot is still one of the worst shots in basketball. Doesn’t really matter if one of the greatest ever is the one shooting it.

The half ends with the Clippers up 13 points. There’s nothing particularly great they’re doing on offense — they’re just outhustling the dog-tired Lakers to every loose ball and offensive rebound. Kobe goes into the locker room with 11 points after shooting 3-for-12 from the floor.

Chris Paul is the real difference in this game — he seems less concerned with setting up his teammates, more concerned with creating space for his own 18-footers. This is how I wish he would play — unlike Kobe, Paul is a natural facilitator. The assists and the control of the game will always be there. But he’s also the best offensive player on his team and could score 22 a night without upsetting the Clippers’ tempo.

Third Quarter

11:45: Kobe hits a jumper to start the second half. At this point, the over/under for his second-half shot attempts should be set at 20. The Clippers quickly double-team him whenever he catches the ball on the wing. The strategy only makes sense if the Clippers assume that Kobe’s going to shoot anyway. Through the first two and a half minutes of the third quarter, he does just that. But at 9:45, he catches the ball on the right-hand side of the block and finally goes to the rim, executing a Jordan-esque up-and-under. The Lakers crowd gets loud again. There are several people in the crowd yelling things like, “Hey, Kobe, drop 50 on them.”

6:45: If the Lakers are going to struggle this year, it will be because Pau Gasol has lost the ability to create easy shots for himself. Everything the Lakers do on offense requires a high level of difficulty. They desperately need a real point guard who can create easy opportunities for Gasol, Bryant, and Bynum. Unfortunately, that point guard is playing on the other team right now.

The Clippers have been forcing a switch on the pick-and-roll, leaving one of the Lakers bigs to guard Paul one-on-one on the perimeter. They should run a version of this play every time — it would create a half dozen lob opportunities per game and would keep the ball in the hands of the only player on the team who can consistently dominate in the half court. In their first five or six games, it felt like Paul’s job was to set up 3-point attempts for Billups and Tuff Juice. This system placed the focus of the offense in the hands of the third and fourth best players on the team. Vinny Del Negro finally seems to be understanding Chris Paul’s unique skills — he can set the entire offensive tempo with the ball in his hands. There is no need to run an open-court offense with him. Just give him the ball, run a couple screen-rolls, and let the league’s best point guard dictate where the ball goes.

4:15: Kobe knocks down two straight long jump shots. He’s finding the right spots on the floor now. Or, perhaps, we should say that the Lakers point guards are finally finding him in the right spots?

3:29: The game gets pretty chippy. On a loose ball in the corner, Darius Morris picks up a technical foul. The animosity on the court stems from Blake Griffin and Josh McRoberts. At some point this year, Josh McRoberts will be involved in a bench-clearing brawl. He’s filled with annoying hustle — all elbows, scowls, and fake intensity. He’s the anti-Kurt Thomas.

2:12: Kobe’s already shot 12 free throws. Passing seems to be out of the question — he’s shot the last four times he’s touched the ball.

1:18: The Lakers make a mini-run and it becomes clear who runs this town. Staples hasn’t been this loud since the opening introductions.

51.5: The chest-puffing and posturing turns into actual violence as Chris Paul decks Kobe on a fast break. As Kobe steps to the line, Staples erupts with MVP chants. At this point, I feel like I should revise my estimate of 60/40 Clippers/Lakers crowd distribution. It’s more like 70/30 in favor of the Lakers. The Clippers are still up three, but Kobe’s scoring outburst has revitalized the Lakers faithful.

31.9: Kobe hits an impossible 3-pointer with Randy Foye draped all over him. The underbite makes its first appearance of the night. He’s at 32 points, the Pernell Whitaker rhythm has returned, and one thing’s very clear: Kobe Bryant is not going to pass the ball anymore. On the next possession down the floor, he launches another 3-pointer that clangs off the back of the rim.

Kobe scores 21 points in the third quarter. He doesn’t quite catch fire as much as he slightly improves on every aspect of his offensive game. He tries to get to the rim. He gets to the line nine times. He makes seven of eight free throws. He knocks down contested 3-point shots. Everything that was working last night clunks back into order in the third quarter. The Lakers cut a 13-point halftime deficit down to four.

Fourth Quarter
Kobe takes the court to start the fourth. He’s already logged 32 minutes. The Clippers commit to doubling him every time down the court. They seem to know that Kobe is going to shoot every time. His teammates must be expecting something similar. They look sluggish on their cuts, and although they never quite just stand around to watch Kobe run around the perimeter with the ball, they also don’t seem convinced that he’s going to do anything that involves them. On three straight possessions, Bynum and Gasol don’t even bother establishing position in the post.

8:55: As far as I can tell from here at courtside, these are the Lakers plays:

    1. Kobe on the wing. Shoots contested jump shot.
    2. Kobe at the top of the arc. Either runs frantically around the perimeter to shake a double team or just shoots a contested jump shot.
    3. Kobe catches the ball on the block. Shoots turnaround jumper.
    4. Something involving Andrew Bynum awkwardly trying to dunk, but usually successfully dunking.
    5. Something involving Pau in the high post. This play should be run on half of the Lakers possessions. In the second half, it’s run maybe twice.

This must be dispiriting for Bryant’s competent teammates. The Clippers, specifically Reggie Evans, are battering them on the offensive boards.

8:16: Chris Paul continues to gut the Lakers. He’s scored eight points in this quarter alone. With the Lakers down 11 with eight minutes left and Kobe at 32 for the night, does he completely sell out for 40? And is it possible that Kobe going for 40 might be the best bet for a Lakers team that cannot get the ball down low to their bigs? Gasol and Bynum have a combined 26 points, but most of their opportunities have been on put-backs and busted plays. The lack of Lamar Odom really shows up in this respect: Lamar’s post passing created three to four opportunities a night for Gasol and Bynum. Darius Morris’ passing has created somewhere close to zero. Where the hell is Rafer Alston? Or Jamaal Tinsley? Is there really nobody on a couch somewhere who could come in and play over Darius Morris? He’d only have to learn five plays, and the first four involve standing around and watching Kobe go to work.

5:45: Kobe fights off the double team and buries another jumper. Forty seems like a foregone conclusion at this point. The Lakers crowd, once again, starts staring up at the JumboTron.

4:25: Kobe dribbles his team out of a possession by failing to shake off a double-team. After two laps around the perimeter, he launches himself in the air and throws a wild pass to Pau Gasol, who misses an off-balance jump hook. Forty hangs heavy over the game, and it’s hard to not watch Kobe dribbling with his head down and not wonder if he’s already opted for his contingency plan. On the other end of the court, Chris Paul keeps humiliating the Lakers defenders and puts the Clippers up by 13.

3:50: Another contested jumper for Kobe goes off the back of the rim. Gasol had a much smaller defender completely sealed off that time. Kobe didn’t even look at him.

3:30: If the other Lakers have better ideas, they’re sure as hell not proposing them. Bynum dumps the ball in to Kobe in the post. He scores on a turnaround. The next time down the court, he sinks a floater to get to 40 for the game.

1:16: Kobe keeps shooting. He’s now 14-for-28 from the field, which, if you look at the box score, is perfectly fine. But unlike last night, when Bryant’s shots mostly came from within the flow of the offense, at least 18 of tonight’s shots disrupted the Lakers tempo. .

This 40 came much harder than last night’s. This, in part, was due to the Clippers’ defense. Part of Bryant’s struggles came from exhaustion — outside of that short period in the third quarter, Kobe didn’t have the same bounce in his step.

After the game, Mike Brown mostly talked about offensive rebounding and how his bigs needed to be more aggressive on the boards. When asked about whether or not he felt the need to rein in Kobe, Brown laughed and said Kobe Bryant didn’t need to be told anything. If it becomes apparent that Kobe’s shot selection is hurting his team’s chances of winning games, will Brown be able to reach a Phil Jackson-like compromise with his superstar? Given Brown’s past with LeBron in Cleveland, that’s difficult to imagine.

In the locker room, the usual media horde hovered around Kobe’s locker. When he finally came out, he looked exhausted and upset. He mumbled his way through some standard answers and said he didn’t even think much about the streak of 40 games. Like Mike Brown, Kobe said something about the need to rebound better and get to loose balls. There’s an implicit demand in those statements that would trouble any great professional athlete — Kobe and Mike Brown were essentially telling the Lakers bigs to try harder on the boards. Anyone who has played any level of organized basketball understands that big men play harder when they feel involved in the team’s offensive flow. Yes, Pau Gasol is a paid professional, but he’s also a notoriously touchy superstar who rightfully believes that he is the difference between the 2006 Los Angeles Lakers and the team that won two championships. In a game where there’s only one ball to share between five players, inconsistency can be triggered by nearly anything, including the anxiety of never knowing if you’re going to get your touches. Kobe’s defenders will point out that he shot 50 percent against the Clippers and helped drag his teammates back into the game. But anyone who watched how Kobe got to 42 tonight must have had flashbacks to 2006, when some of the greatest individual excellence ever seen in professional basketball netted 45 wins and a first-round playoff exit.2

The Lakers cannot win with this Kobe Bryant, and this Kobe Bryant isn’t going anywhere. But can anyone really blame him for reverting back to the most enthralling one-man show in American sports? This season started with an unwanted coaching hire, a lockout, a nixed trade, and the unceremonial jettison of the team’s third-best player. The Lakers fans seem to have already bought into the Kobe show. It’s difficult to cheer for Josh McRoberts, much less figure out a reason why Kobe should pass him the ball. But this particular Lakers dynasty dies a little with every possession that ends with Kobe taking a bad shot. If the scoring streak continues in this fashion, the rest of the team will start to check out. Like in 2006, Kobe’s teammates don’t have the guff to say anything to him. It doesn’t appear as if his coach does, either. Even if Dwight Howard comes to town by the trade deadline, can we reasonably expect Kobe to completely change up the way he plays? Pau Gasol is a better offensive player than Howard — if Pau and Bynum are getting frozen out for entire quarters, why, exactly, should Howard expect anything different?

A few minutes into Kobe’s postgame talk with the media, Pau Gasol walked out of the trainer’s room. The majority of the press didn’t acknowledge his presence. I, along with a few other people in the huddle, managed to at least look over at Pau, who, with an incredulous smile on his face, shrugged and sat down in front of his locker.

Jay Caspian Kang is an editor at Grantland. His debut novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, will be published by Hogarth/Random House in summer 2012. Follow him on Twitter at @jaycaspiankang.


Previously from Jay Caspian Kang:
Person of Interest: Kwame Brown
The Chris Paul debacle: Parity at What Cost?
Marquez-Pacquiao III: Un Robo! Un Robo!
Fight of the Year?
The X Factor Preview: In Defense of TV Singing Competitions

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Filed Under: Jay Caspian Kang, Kobe Bryant, People