Hey Kobe, Feel Free to Shoot
The two words sailed from my mouth like a desperation half-court heave.
The two words hovered strangely in the air like an alien spacecraft.
In a decade of watching Kobe Bryant, I had never felt compelled to say them.
During his lifetime of baskets and bravado, Bryant has quite possibly never heard them.
But from the start of Bryant’s first playoff game as the Laker leader Sunday against the Phoenix Suns, unbelievably, inexplicably, the two words flew.
I said it in the first quarter when Bryant went 16 consecutive possessions without taking a shot.
The league’s leading scorer. Against a team he has dominated for 43 points a game. Passing to Kwame Brown?
I said it in the second quarter, when Bryant had a rebound, an assist, a blocked shot ... but zero baskets on only four shots.
A guy who scored 81 points once. The only guy on the floor with a championship ring. Passing to Smush Parker?
I said it again in the third quarter when Bryant had as many assists as baskets -- two each -- on only three more shots.
The game’s greatest player. The Lakers’ only chance. Passing to Sasha Vujacic?
Finally, at the start of the fourth quarter, with the score tied, Bryant shot it.
But by then, he had lost his touch, the artist’s canvas becoming a mechanic’s toolbox.
Instead of swish, it was clank.
Clank. Clank. Clank. Clank. Clank.
Bryant missed his first five shots of the quarter, lost the ball on a layup where he couldn’t fight through a foul, padded around as if playing with oven mitts.
Too brittle, too late, his Lakers losing, 107-102, in an opener they could have stolen.
If somebody hadn’t swiped Bryant’s aggressiveness first.
“Yes, I was surprised, I was, I was,” said the Suns’ Leandro Barbosa, who helped harass Bryant into making only a third of his 21 shots, for 22 points.
Barbosa smiled in amazement.
“Before the game, we were concerned about him, we all talk about him,” he said. “But he doesn’t do what he’s supposed to do.”
Actually, that’s sort of the problem here.
Bryant was doing what he was supposed to do.
Coach Phil Jackson tweaked the triangle so that the Lakers would pound the wafer-thin Suns inside for three quarters, and then let Bryant win it for them.
It all went according to plan until, well, Bryant couldn’t win it for them.
“It was good team basketball, Kobe got everyone involved, it was nice,” the Suns’ Shawn Marion said. “But they didn’t win, did they? So that means it didn’t work, did it?”
No, it didn’t, and here’s hoping that the Lakers realize that it probably won’t work.
Here’s hoping that if the Lakers go down, they go down with their only gun blazing.
I’ll admit, this advice sounds odd, coming from someone who has spent years writing that Bryant should stop hogging the ball.
But that was Shaq, and this is now.
To see Bryant passing up a shot to pass the ball so Brian Cook could take the same shot?
To watch Bryant sit around for three quarters before leaping out of the recliner and running awkwardly and ineffectively to the refrigerator?
Now that’s strange.
(Perhaps not as strange as watching a retired Cedric “The Entertainer?” Ceballos holding a microphone and leading on-court cheers here, but close.)
Even Santa Clara-cool Steve Nash, who acts as if he has seen everything, admitted surprise at Bryant’s game.
“Yeah,” he said. “We’ve been so accustomed to seeing him put up as many shots as possible.”
Before Sunday, the Lakers were 0-7 against Suns’ teams with Nash, so Jackson can’t be blamed for trying something new.
But did it have to last three quarters?
At least in most of those losses, it felt as if the Lakers had fought the Suns with their best punch. Sunday’s loss was caused not by a hit, but a balk.
“Our game plan was to exploit the middle ... [Bryant] was still supposed to be a force over on that side of the offense,” Jackson said. “I just felt like he never really got in rhythm until the end.”
Not like Nash, who potted a rainbow three-pointer with 1:07 remaining in the game to clinch it. But then, Nash had been Nash for the previous three periods, penetrating and dishing and firing.
It’s tough to ask any scorer to hold the ball for two hours and then shoot it continually for 20 minutes. Even the tough-as-copper Bryant cannot control his game like a faucet.
“It was just a matter of finding that groove,” Bryant said, defending the strategy. “But this is what we want to do. All I need is one jumper to go in, and I’m hot.”
Perhaps, but a day that began with two unbelievable words ended with nine unfathomable ones.
“I was not looking to attack, to assert myself,” Bryant said.
A nice strategy on paper, perhaps, but in a hole in a playoff series against the best-shooting team in basketball, those are words to die by.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.