Lakers’ Kobe Bryant finally puts his stamp on the series
On a loud night in a hostile land, basketball’s most obstinate, headstrong, willful player did something amazing.
He listened to the headaches of a team. He listened to the heartbeat of a series.
I would say he listened to me in Saturday’s column, but Kobe Bryant would rather hug Shaquille O’Neal than listen to me, so, no, but still . . .
In Game 4 of their first-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz at revived EnergySolutions Arena, the Lakers didn’t need that trendy scripted guy named Bryant.
They needed old-school Kobe.
They needed lots of shots, lots of glares, two hours of daggers from wrist and soul.
The situation begged for Kobe Bryant to put his foot on the Jazz’s neck and his stamp on a scary series.
And, wow, whew, did he listen.
Seventeen seconds into the game, he nailed a jump shot. Two minutes later he hit another jump shot. And another jump shot.
Boos rained. Teammates howled. Energy shifted.
Midway through the first quarter, Bryant had made as many baskets -- five -- as he had in his entire Game 3 nightmare.
A couple of hours later, he finished with more baskets -- 16 -- than in his previous two games combined.
Building silenced. Lakers sighed. Series bludgeoned.
The Lakers took a three-games-to-one lead with a one-for-the-memories night by their leader, a 108-94 victory in which Bryant scored 38 points with near-perfect shooting and perception.
“I wanted to come out and be a little more aggressive,” Bryant said afterward with his first grin of the night. “It makes it easier for my teammates to gain confidence in a hostile environment.”
Duh. It sounds so simple. The Lakers’ best player acting like it from the opening tip.
But lately, Bryant had discovered it helps to get his teammates involved first. His passing helps Pau Gasol find a rhythm. His movement helps Lamar Odom find a seam.
This has worked, and will continue to work, but sometimes he just needs to return to his inner gunner. After his early passiveness led to the Lakers’ Game 3 loss to the outmanned Jazz on Thursday night, his teammates needed that gunner. The building could be quieted only by that gunner.
In Saturday’s paper, I wrote that, despite years of criticizing Bryant for shooting too much, I also felt the Lakers needed that gunner.
Turns out, he did read the story. Of course, I wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know. He would rather hug Ron Artest than admit I ever told him something he didn’t know.
“Bill almost tipped my hand,” he said of my column at the news conference after Saturday’s game. “He brought that point up, and I didn’t want him to tip my hand.”
Moments into the game, everyone knew, with Bryant scoring the Lakers’ first 11 points. Just in case anyone forgot, at the start the second half he scored 10 of their first 12 points.
By then, a group of Jazz players who had once been stalking and pumping their fists were now trudging and shaking their heads.
“He was probably trying to prove a point,” said Utah’s Kyle Korver.
Bryant’s teammates got it, feeding off his intensity to such a degree that four of them scored in double figures, and the Lakers had a 46-39 edge in rebounds.
“We needed that type of performance from him tonight,” said Derek Fisher. “When your best player is leading you, I think everyone gets excited, the shooting gets contagious.”
Assistant coach Brian Shaw put it more bluntly.
“It’s like when somebody is bullying you, and your big brother shows up,” he said.
Bryant’s play not only affected the players, but the fans, turning EnergySolutions Arena into something resembling an upscale playground.
In various sections of the arena, Lakers fans stood and popped their Bryant jerseys and jeered.
In the rest of the arena, Jazz fans stood and screamed back.
For the first time in my dozen years of covering playoff basketball in this city, I heard a cursing chant:
“Kobe [bleeps] . . . Kobe [bleeps].”
Also for the first time, I saw a fan escorted from the building for bad behavior. It was a Lakers fan, ejected for -- what else? -- taunting somebody with his Bryant jersey.
It was all so furrowed and furious that afterward, Bryant acted as if an entire population of 18 million had been lifted from his shoulders.
He not only smiled, he actually hugged Utah’s Andrei Kirilenko in a hallway outside the interview room as if consoling him.
The series now moves back to Los Angeles for Game 5 and another test of Bryant’s flexibility.
Saturday was fun. Saturday is how the Lakers occasionally will have to survive. But Saturday is not how the Lakers will ultimately triumph.
There is a happy medium somewhere between Shooting Kobe and Selfless Kobe. It is in that spot where the Lakers will find their championship.
I think everyone can now trust that Bryant knows this. After all, this is a guy who now listens.
“It’s important for me to stay aggressive,” he said. “At the same time, I want to pull the guys along with me.”