Shaq's Out; Kobe's Way In

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forced to scrape through the first of three games without Shaquille O'Neal on Monday night, Kobe Bryant scored a career-high 56 points.

Playing in the wake of O'Neal's suspension, announced earlier in the day, Bryant sucked the gravity out of Staples Center and scored enough for both of them. He then did not play the fourth quarter.

The Lakers defeated the helpless Memphis Grizzlies, 120-81, in the early part of a week they'll spend without O'Neal.

After two days of talk of thuggery and loaded-up right hands, Bryant scrawled "34," O'Neal's number, on his sneakers and then flitted elegantly through a baffled defense.

Afterward, asked to give a message for O'Neal, Bryant leaned into a radio microphone and said, "I love you, man."

His 56 were the most points scored in the NBA this season.

He made 21 of 34 field-goal attempts, including three of six from the three-point arc. He had five rebounds, and time enough for four assists, and left for good at the end of three quarters to a standing ovation, therapy for a crowd of 18,997 that came in part to mourn O'Neal's three-game suspension.

Elgin Baylor's Laker record 71 points was safe only because the Grizzlies, who had never allowed so many points to an individual, even in four quarters, were not good enough to keep Bryant in the game.

"It was a combination of emotions," Bryant said later. "I was upset because we lost in Chicago, and two in a row. I was upset that Shaq was suspended."

In a team meeting early Monday, Bryant admitted that his game had strayed, and promised his teammates that he would rework his into theirs'.

"I want to make up for it tonight," Coach Phil Jackson recalled him saying.

Jackson chuckled.

"I thought he meant he was going to pass the ball," he said.

It might have been the plan. Then, Bryant felt it, and everyone in the place thought one thing: Jordan.

"Sometimes, my offensive aggressiveness can take them out of a game," Bryant said. "I know that and they know that. I just let them know, 'I'm here for you guys. I'm here for you."

Turned out, they were there for him, urging him to shoot, setting picks to open lanes, lobbing alley-oops.

And, sometimes, getting the heck out of the way.

"This guy created his own shots," said Samaki Walker, who started at center for O'Neal. "I mean, he had four guys on him, away from the basket guarding him at one point. To come down, do a different move every time down the floor, there's no answer for that. I've never seen anything like that before in my life."

Bryant scored 36 points in Memphis on Dec. 21, the night he strained his right ribs and could barely breathe in the fourth quarter.

He was on his way to 50 that night, it seemed. More, maybe.

Unable to lift his arms over his head, Bryant did not score after the third quarter, and O'Neal was hindered by two bad feet, and the Lakers lost by six points.

Very healthy 31/2 weeks later, Bryant had 14 points in the first quarter and 18 in the second. He reached halftime having made 14 of 22 attempts, and left the floor with a shout and hard high-fives for Brian Shaw and Lindsey Hunter.

Those 36 points were the most by a Grizzlie opponent in the first half. Baylor scored 37 points in the first half at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15, 1960, the Laker record, on his way to 71.

By the third quarter, an otherwise sedate crowd stirred every time Bryant had the ball on offense, and groaned a little when someone other than Bryant took a shot.

Bryant blew on his fingertips when he feathered in a 10-foot fade-away that gave the Lakers a 76-52 lead. He closed his fists when he double-clutched and dunked with two hands for an 88-56 lead. He grinned sheepishly when he pulled up from 16 feet, with Grizzlies hanging from his elbows, and flipped it in for a 98-59 lead.

All in the third quarter.

"All I saw," he said, "was the hoop."

At that point, Bryant had his 56 points, or three fewer than the Grizzlies, who at all times had five guys, presumably, trying to score.

The fourth quarter started with Bryant on the bench. When it was announced, "Mitch Richmond, replacing Kobe Bryant," the crowd booed, then chanted "Ko-BEE! Ko-BEE!," to no avail. He spent the fourth quarter with a towel over his shoulders and a wide smile on his face, not at all disturbed to be out.

"I just felt really good," Bryant said.

Richmond took the trademark sweatband off Bryant's biceps, and put it on his own arm, as Bryant laughed. He wiped his hands on Bryant's legs and wiped the sweat on his own.

Then he went out and made his first jumper.

The patsies in most of this was Shane Battier, the rookie from Duke. But, he hardly was alone. The Grizzlies ran handfuls of players at Bryant, including 7-footer Pau Gasol, who blocked Bryant's last shot--from 25 feet away.

"I was trying to decide if I needed to run out there myself and trip him," Grizzlie Coach Sidney Lowe said. "He was unbelievable. He was certainly making a statement, answering the questions about Shaq."

O'Neal was not in the building, one of the requirements of a suspension. He'd be sorry he missed it.

"That was one of the most incredible things you'll probably ever see," Robert Horry said. "Words can't describe what that cat did tonight. He was unreal."

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This season's Top scorers)

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