Kobe Bryant and the Lakers are not having Commitment IssuesWhen I first saw the Phil Jackson quote questioning Kobe Bryant's commitment to the team I thought that it was one of the silliest things that I had read in quite some time--but in case anyone actually took that nonsense seriously, Bryant is making sure that his actions completely refute it. First he scored 45 points in a close loss to a strong Houston team in the season opener. Then he had a double-double and a game-high +27 plus/minus rating as the Lakers routed last year's Pacific Division champion Phoenix Suns. On Sunday night, Bryant scored a game-high 33 points on 13-19 shooting as the Lakers beat the Utah Jazz 119-109. Bryant's plus/minus rating of +13 was second only to Andrew Bynum's +14 rating (Bynum shot 6-7 from the field and had 15 points and nine rebounds in just 19 minutes). Bryant also had five rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocked shots; the latter of those two rejections was a highlight reel play: Andrei Kirilenko stole the ball from Luke Walton and made a beeline for the hoop to throw down a two handed dunk only to have Bryant deliver an emphatic left handed rejection to maintain a 98-91 Lakers lead with 6:05 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Bryant takes a lot of pride in making that kind of defensive play: "I really, really enjoy that challenge, because it's a mano-a-mano type of thing where somebody challenges you to meet you at the rim. When you have that type of situation, they see that you're not going to take a charge because you're just lining them up. So they know they have to either go over the top of you or go through you. I saw him coming down on the wing, and I just tried to time it and get up there and see if I could catch him. I timed it pretty well."
Bryant helped to seal the win by scoring six points in the last 4:30 of the game. Keep in mind that Bryant is doing all of these things despite dealing with a balky right wrist. New/old Laker Derek Fisher struggled from the field (3-11) versus Utah but shot 13-14 from the free throw line, finishing with 19 points and five assists. Fisher is far from being an All-Star but his toughness and savvy make him a huge upgrade over the departed Smush Parker (who got his second consecutive Did Not Play-Coach's Decision on Sunday as his Heat fell to 0-3). Keep in mind that the Lakers are enjoying this early success without their second best player, the injured Lamar Odom. What these wins over Phoenix and Utah show is that Bryant does not need tons of help to lead a team to victory; he needs productive, focused efforts from the other starters plus some energy from the bench. Bynum and Jordan Farmar (12 points in 17 minutes) provided the latter against Utah. Bryant's commitment is not the issue in Lakerland and Fisher will give you everything he's got every night. If guys like Bynum and Farmar--plus Luke Walton, Ronny Turiaf and Odom when he returns--can provide some kind of consistent production then the Lakers can be a dangerous team. We saw that at the start of last season when the Lakers were a top four team in the West before Bynum hit the proverbial wall and several other frontcourt players went down with various injuries.
It should be obvious what the next "big" mainstream media story about the Lakers will be: how Phil Jackson cleverly motivated Bryant by publicly questioning his commitment. If you expect any "expert" or "analyst"--other than Hubie Brown, who steadfastly refused to buy into any nonsense about Bryant not playing hard--to say that Jackson's statement was inaccurate and that Jackson should not have said it then you don't understand how the media works. Simple facts like Bryant's statistics and wins by the Lakers can never, ever be allowed to get in the way of the "larger story," which in this case is that Bryant will (allegedly) pout until he is traded, thereby becoming a distraction to the team. If the Lakers win 15 games in a row, that story still cannot be abandoned; the wrinkle of Jackson as the master motivator who nipped Bryant's pouting in the bud will simply be grafted on to the main narrative. If you watch and listen closely enough, you will notice that many members of the media employ this technique in stories about matters more significant than NBA games but that is a story for another day.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:59 AM