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Jackson Looks to Bryant

Times Staff Writer

The experience of Denver was, perhaps, more taxing than most of the Lakers thought it might be.

Kobe Bryant appeared drained by the third quarter Wednesday night, having played through unblinking attention and thin rotations around him, the Lakers’ fourth consecutive loss coming faster than he could fight off.

By Friday night, Phil Jackson said he only hoped that Bryant’s 24 hours in Denver marked the end of that part of Bryant’s trouble, and that the season might become simpler for him now.

It is especially important now, Jackson said, with Shaquille O’Neal expected to be out at least another game and Karl Malone not due back until mid-week at the earliest, that Bryant become firmer in his play.

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“We really rely on him now to be the leading scorer,” he said. “Gary [Payton] is the initiator, so Kobe doesn’t have to carry that with him as much. But he has to do more now that Shaq’s out than just be a scorer. He has to be also a playmaker at times, and set the table for the other guys. And give us the leadership that he’s gained over the years of playing, playing in critical situations.

“He survived the Denver debacle, or ordeal, or whatever you want to call it. Now it’s time to come back here and play the kind of game he can play for us, and measure the game out and find a way to help us win.”

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Payton, to the guys at “Best Damn Sports Show Period”: “Kobe wasn’t into the team mode. He didn’t want to play cards, he didn’t want to play dominos and things like that. Now he’s starting to do that kind of stuff with me being around him and being on the plane. I’m getting him up, coming from his seat, saying, ‘C’mon let’s play some cards, let’s play dominos, let’s do this, let’s learn how to play this, so you can get your mind off of it,’ because he sits over there. And it’s like no one wants to go over and talk to him because people are basically scared to talk to him because they don’t know what to talk to him about.

“He always comes to me and I always get him up. We chat, we joke, we talk about each other, we get things fun so that he can go back to being Kobe and go back to being himself.”

For years, teammates have said they believed that was Kobe being himself.

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Malone could practice with the team this weekend for the first time since spraining his knee Dec. 21, Jackson said Friday.

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Also, Jackson said he hoped Malone would be able to play against the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night, the first day he would be eligible to come off the injured list.

“There’s a chance,” Jackson said. “There’s really an outside chance.”

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Rookie Brian Cook played 56 minutes on the trip through Minnesota and Denver, nearly quadrupling his previous playing time.

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Kareem Rush scored 16 points against the Timberwolves and 14 against the Nuggets. Luke Walton found himself in the rotation, and Jamal Sampson played 20 minutes.

Known for having little use for rookies, Jackson has had little choice than to play his youngsters, given injuries to O’Neal and Malone and flagging play by others.

“Every minute those guys get to play on the floor is an investment in them and the team,” Jackson said.

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The difference between the Horace Grant who played for the Lakers in the 2000-01 season and the one now, according to Jackson: “He’s one operation and three years older. That’s the difference.”


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