They’ll need Bryant to get better
Phil Jackson had said he might change the Lakers’ starting lineup for their game against Atlanta on Friday, and he kept his word.
But his switch didn’t involve benching center Kwame Brown, as he had indicated. This one was born of necessity, not choice.
Kobe Bryant, still bothered by the sprained ankle he suffered on Monday, didn’t play and wasn’t on the bench for the Lakers’ 106-95 victory over the Hawks at Staples Center. “We decided about 20 minutes before the game,” Bryant said when asked when he knew that he couldn’t go.
Without Bryant’s 25.9 points per game and the star wattage he generates, the Lakers -- and the crowd -- were flat for most of the first half. Bryant’s replacement, Maurice Evans, scored a career-best 22 points, and Luke Walton had a career-high 25 as the Lakers escaped the embarrassment of a second straight loss to a bad team and improved to 9-12 without Bryant over the last three seasons.
“Luke and I talked about it. It was very important for us to try and win this game any way possible,” Evans said. “Both of us are guys who are creative scorers and can do a little more, and I think we did a pretty good job of that tonight.”
Bryant’s absence raised the question of why he played Wednesday against New Orleans instead of resting in hopes the sprain wouldn’t become a lingering problem, as it now seems to be. After all, the Lakers could have lost to the Hornets just as easily without him as they did with him playing slightly more than 37 minutes.
And with the schedule about to become less friendly, with tougher travel and tougher opponents imminent, the Lakers will need a fit and sharp Bryant to lead them through the coming weeks.
Bryant acknowledged after the Hornets game that his ankle was “a little more swollen” than before he played. That left Jackson to tap Evans for his second start this season and first since Nov. 1, when Bryant was recovering from off-season knee surgery.
Evans said he wasn’t sure until a few moments before tipoff that Bryant wouldn’t play. “I prepared in my mind to start,” Evans said. “It’s better to be prepared to start and not start, than not to prepare and then start.”
Although he was prepared, the Lakers as a whole fumbled through the first half, committing 12 turnovers and trailing, 47-46.
“I think we were still trying to adapt without Kobe in the first half,” Evans said. “Of course, he’s a huge part of our offense. He’s a dominant scorer in our offense. Everyone was trying to find out who was going to take some shots and who was going to make up for a little bit of Kobe’s absence.”
It took them awhile, but they got it right, and that lineup change worked out fine. So did the change Jackson did not make.
Although Jackson had hinted he might replace Brown with Ronny Turiaf, he stuck with Brown, who contributed 13 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in 30 minutes. Andrew Bynum played 16 minutes, and Turiaf played 5 1/2 minutes.
If the Lakers could combine Brown’s defensive ability, Bynum’s bulk and potential and Turiaf’s enthusiasm, they’d have one terrific center.
“We’re happy with both of them regardless of the traits that are different,” Jackson said, referring to Bynum and Brown. “Andrew is not a player that can get up and be as quick and active, but his ability to change shots is a nice effect to have. You want a center to be quick and active and switch and play another man that’s a guard and be capable of feeling comfortable with the speed.”
Jackson said he wanted to see more “activity” from Brown, as well as a stronger rebounding presence. The Lakers had a 42-35 rebounding edge on Friday.
“The biggest thing is his defense off a screen-roll,” Jackson said. “One of the reasons we really like Kwame is he’s an active defender off screen-roll. He’s got real quick feet and he can go out and take the ball and steal the ball and be aggressive. And that’s one of the things we’ve always valued.”
Brown followed Jackson’s instructions successfully Friday, though he should have, by all rights, feasted against Zaza Pachulia and Lorenzen Wright. Brown contributed eight points and five rebounds in the third quarter before he got his fifth foul and was pulled.
“The games that I’m really not aggressive I have to learn to be aggressive without the ball,” he said. “Just because you’re not getting the ball because teams are playing zone [defense] I’ve still got to be able to get some offensive rebounds and do some things and make an impact on the game.”
Turiaf, good-natured as always, said he didn’t feel insulted that Jackson didn’t put him in the lineup.
“It’s the total opposite. For him to think about starting me is a definite pleasure that I take,” he said. “It’s an honor to be regarded by Phil Jackson and for him to even think about it, I feel so blessed. If it happens, I’ll be ready to go.”
The Lakers were ready Friday, but with San Antonio, Houston and Dallas looming, they’ll need Bryant’s ankle to heal quickly or they’ll feel more pain than he does.