He didn’t hit the last shot. He didn’t make the big steal. He summoned only a handful of oohs, a couple of aahs and
a smattering of M-V-Ps.
Cued to enter his favorite stage Sunday, Kobe Bryant instead spent most of the first postseason game of his 16th season hovering in the wings.
He’s never been quieter. He’s rarely been better.
Just when we thought we’d seen every possible evolution of this town’s most complicated athlete, a howling Staples Center sellout crowd was introduced to the Invisible Mamba.
He wasn’t really seen until the fourth quarter. He was barely heard until after the game. But with an influence that flowed as brilliantly as his aching body once did, Bryant was felt through every inch of the Lakers’ 103-88 victory over the Denver Nuggets in the playoff opener.
After spending much of the season openly pushing his teammates to be more assertive, Bryant contentedly stood aside for three quarters while watching them assertively smack the Nuggets upside the head.
Steve Blake’s trio of three-point swishes that started it?
“Kobe is always saying things like, ‘If something is there, you’ve got to take it,’ ” said Blake.
Jordan Hill’s 10 points and 10 rebounds off the bench?
“Kobe is always saying we have to rely on everyone on the floor,” said Hill.
Ramon Sessions’ calmly scoring 14 points with only two turnovers in nearly 30 minutes in his career postseason debut?
“Kobe told me, ‘If you’re going to go down, go down shooting,’ ” said Sessions, grinning. “Hey, if Kobe says it, I’m good to go.”
If the Lakers spend the next few weeks elaborating on this impressive opening statement, they are good to go, like, really far.
“It’s a championship-caliber team,” Bryant said afterward with a sense of pride in his voice that one doesn’t often hear even after he has just hit a buzzer-beater.
This being a game in which nearly half of his 31 points were scored in a garbage-time fourth quarter, could Bryant actually be as happy as if he had just hit a fade-away to win it?
“Even more so,” he said with a smile, 33 years old and all grown up.
Andrew Bynum was the statistical star by recording the Lakers’ first postseason triple-double in 21 years -- including a Lakers postseason-record 10 blocks. But Bryant ended up with an impressive triple-double of his own, scoring big in unselfishness, perspective and leadership.
“Kobe has empowered his teammates, and it’s fun to watch,” said Coach Mike Brown.
Earlier this year, in what could be the most important realization of his waning career, Bryant finally understood that age and pains will prohibit him from winning a sixth championship on his own. For the first time, he actively pushed his teammates to win games themselves.
“Kobe would be extremely vocal, telling guys to step up,” said Brown.
Bryant would yell at Gasol not to pass the ball, but to take it up hard himself. Bryant would push Sessions not to feed him, but to find his own lane and be his own star.
“You have to force the game upon them.... You have to force-feed them,” Bryant said.
And when Bryant felt as if the team was still fearfully deferring to him in crunch time, he tried something else.
“Sometimes you have to literally disappear,” he said.
So he nursed a shin injury for seven games, then amazingly blew off a chance to win a third scoring title
by resting during the Lakers’ final game, then showed up Sunday in full mentor mode.
“He’s definitely a player-coach out there,” said Sessions.
For most of the nearly 40 minutes that Bryant was on the court, the Lakers attack swirled around him instead of stopping in front of him. His teammates played free instead of fearful.
How else to explain Devin Ebanks, a little-used replacement for the suspended Metta World Peace, feeling confident enough to throw up enough first-half shots to result in a dozen points?
“Kobe says that if we stay aggressive early, it only opens up the floor for him later, so that’s what we do,” said Ebanks.
The Lakers have learned that being aggressive early works not only in games, but in postseasons. Statements like the one they made Sunday can resonate for weeks. Six times in the Bryant era, they’ve won their first postseason game by at least 10 points. Four of those times they advanced to at least the Finals, winning three titles.
The Nuggets, who never led, weren’t very good. But this type of win was absolutely huge.
“We played a 48-minute game,” said Brown. “We played the game the right way.”
Then the fans celebrated in the right way with the white souvenir T-shirts that carried the uninspiring slogan “One at a Time.”
Instead of wearing the shirts, they were waving the shirts, through the sky above the head of their favorite player who was a star by not being a star, a day of adjustments for everyone.