Aging before our very eyes, Kobe Bryant was, his game regressing the last six weeks and his body progressing. Nineteen going on AARP.
"I already have a gray hair," he said.
"I do," he insisted. "Swear. Somewhere right here."
At least he could run a finger a couple inches above his hairline Monday night with a sense of relief. A breakthrough game at McNichols Arena--23 points in the Lakers' 107-86 rout of the Denver Nuggets, with eight baskets in 12 shots and two three-pointers in four tries--had allowed at least that much. That maybe the teen idol can go back to looking like one.
There was also the sense of accomplishment. The 23 points was his biggest offensive output since he got 26 against the Trail Blazers on Feb. 4--the last game before the all-star break. The game before he took New York by storm, and quickly found that his reign wasn't starting quite yet.
Next thing he knows, a dark stretch and a gray hair.
"I don't know if it was the pressure of the genes," he said.
His father has gone silver, when he doesn't keep it cut very close, so there is that. But even Kobe, the eternal optimist, couldn't discount the possible impact of his offensive tailspin, the 75-of-212 shooting tailspin he took into Monday's game, which translated to 35.4%. Which translated to the common perception that he was pressing trying to live up to the hype as defenses keyed more on him, and that maybe making the all-star game, let alone making the starting lineup for the all-star game, was the worst thing that could have happened to him.
As for what happened Monday, there were several possibilities. The obvious one was that the Nuggets happened, allowing all the Lakers to tee off for their fourth victory in a row and 10th in 11 games, but especially Bryant. He was too powerful when matched against Cory Alexander or Anthony Goldwire at guard and too quick for Johnny Newman when the minutes came at small forward.
But there was another theory. His own.
"I just slowed my moves up a little bit," Bryant said. "Tonight, I tried to use my body more, use my size, whether I was backing in or posting up or whatever. I think teams had gotten so used to me facing the basket."
It didn't hurt that he started well, making four of his first six shots. By the second half, he seemed to be playing with the energy of old. Maybe it was just perception, but his game seemed natural again instead of hesitating on the moves or pressing.
"I think he was glad to see his shot back," Coach Del Harris said. "It was just a matter of time. He's too good a shooter to not have it come back."
Said Bryant, at least not disregarding the assessment: "Maybe. I don't know. It might have been subconscious."
Those feelings of the past weeks--when he tried to spend extra time with a family he spent plenty of time with anyway, an attempt to find a distraction from the job troubles--were very conscious. So what happened Monday, as the Lakers kept the pressure on Seattle and Utah in the Western Conference chase, was more than welcome. It was needed.
"I've always been having this much fun," Bryant said. "When you're playing with this group, you can't but help have fun, because of the way the guys are and the way we play.
"But it was nice for myself. Even though I was happy we were winning, I still got upset with myself."
Given the opponent, the breakout could not have been a complete surprise. Arguably the best post-break showing before Monday had also come against the Nuggets--21 points, seven assists, zero turnovers Feb. 19 in Inglewood. The same went for the Lakers as a whole.
Unlike the day before against the stubborn Sacramento Kings, the Lakers barely let the Nuggets hang around until halftime. The lead was 16 by then, en route to 22 points near the end of the third quarter. Then it really got ugly.
The Lakers were ahead, 102-70, midway through the final period, a cushion that came, fittingly, on Bryant's three-pointer. Eddie Jones had just gone out after his own impressive performance (a game-high 27 points on 10-of-14 shooting) and Shaquille O'Neal was just about to, after his 24 points and nine rebounds.