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When Bryant Doesn’t Shoot First, Questions Asked Later

This is the paradox of Kobe Bryant: By passing so much he might have played his most selfish game of the year.

Something strange was going on here, something not revealed in the box score and not discussed by the Lakers afterward, but something unavoidable to anyone who watched Bryant’s play during the Lakers’ 102-85 loss to the Sacramento Kings at Arco Arena.

Bryant didn’t want to shoot in the first half. Practically refused to shoot.

Was it his way of shutting up the teammates who complained after he fired up 72 shots in the previous three games (two of which the Lakers lost)? Was it his way of demonstrating once and for all that the Lakers need him to do his thing in order to be successful? If so, wasn’t this first-place divisional showdown the absolute wrong time to prove it?

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What’s up with Kobe?

These were the loudest, most frequently asked questions on a day that crashed the Lakers’ chances of getting home-court advantage beyond the first round of the playoffs and raised serious doubts about their championship mettle.

And there were no satisfactory answers.

Bryant said he wasn’t injured and wasn’t trying to make any statements.

“I was just laying back, waiting for the flow of the game,” Bryant said. “They doubled me every time I touched the ball. And every time I got into a scoring position, they doubled quickly. So I just moved the ball on, waiting for the game to open up. It just didn’t open up. I’ve done that before, when teams have doubled me.”

The Kings regularly sent a second defender at Bryant whenever he got the ball and made his move. It was different -- the sight of any King other than Doug Christie playing defense at all is different -- and a good wrinkle by the Sacramento coaching staff.

But it’s nothing completely new. And if anyone can find a way to get some shots, it’s Bryant. He even threw the ball off the backboard to himself to break through a double-team and get a layup against Memphis on Friday night.

We’ve seen Bryant turn playmaker for a while before. For example, against Orlando on March 15, following some grumbling after he took 45 shots in the final two games of a trip, he was a non-factor in the first half, scoring one point. The difference that night was that his teammates were more than capable, producing 49 points on their own. And then Bryant uncorked a 24-point fourth quarter to lead the Lakers to victory.

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That night the rest of the Lakers saw he had it going, so they either set screens or cleared out and let him do his thing. They know there are times for Bryant to grab control of the game, and so does he.

“Sometimes I just feel it on my own,” Bryant said Friday night. “Other times my teammates come to me and say, ‘Take over.’ ”

At least two of them asked him to get more involved and be more aggressive Sunday. And the situation screamed for Bryant to do something.

Yet he didn’t take a shot in the first quarter. Not even with Shaquille O’Neal on the bench and the other Lakers misfiring.

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On O’Neal’s first two attempts to go to the hoop, Vlade Divac flopped to the floor, drew charging calls and forced Coach Phil Jackson to pull O’Neal five minutes into the game.

Normally when O’Neal checks out, Bryant chucks up the first shot. But he kept looking for the pass first. His only shot in the first half was a three-point try to beat the shot clock.

It was fine, even wise, for Bryant to be patient and wait for his chances at the beginning. But the players the Kings left open -- Devean George, Slava Medvedenko and Bryon Russell -- shot a combined one for 13 in the first quarter. The Lakers trailed, 31-15, the Arco crowd was rocking and the game was slipping away.

That should have ended the experiment. Or at least, that 17-0 scoring edge Christie held over him at halftime should have stoked the competitive fire. But he continued on.

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He came off a Karl Malone screen and missed a jumper about two minutes into the third quarter, then didn’t shoot again for another six minutes.

“I can’t tell you what he was thinking,” said Gary Payton, who was one of the few Lakers to attack the soft middle of the King defense and hit three three-pointers, winding up with 15 points on six-for-11 shooting. “He played a game the way he plays all the time, he just didn’t take shots.

“He was passing the ball, they were doubling him, he was giving the ball up. We weren’t making shots to open it up for him. He was making the plays he had to make.”

The true facts behind Bryant’s afternoon were a lot like the baseball steroids accusations, with all kinds of incidental evidence but no direct link. The final numbers showed an innocuous eight points on three-for-13 shooting.

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Jackson didn’t provide any answers. He stepped in front of the microphones just long enough to say he was “extremely disappointed” in the Lakers’ performance, then walked away.

Not even old standby Malone stuck around to offer an opinion.

O’Neal, steamed about the foul calls against him, wasn’t about to criticize Bryant for passing when that’s all he ever asks for.

“When you get doubled and tripled like that, you just get rid of the ball and everyone else has to step up too,” O’Neal said.

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All those who watched could do was scratch their heads.

We’ve seen similar occurrences in the NBA.

After the Washington Wizards’ Kwame Brown talked about teammates’ playing selfishly, Gilbert Arenas didn’t take a shot for the first 43 minutes of the next game, finally making two of three in the final five minutes as the Wizards pulled out a victory over the Toronto Raptors.

But those were the Wizards, who were going nowhere. This was the Lakers -- playing to grab the second spot in the Western Conference and retain a faint hope for the top seeding -- dropping to fourth instead.

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Perhaps that’s the SOS Bryant is waiting for.

J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Adande, go to latimes.com/adande.


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