Kobe Bryant returned, and that was the only kind phrase to be written Sunday about the Lakers, who sputtered and flopped against the trade-depleted Toronto Raptors.
The career night belonged to Amir Johnson, a previously docile power forward who nailed the Lakers for 32 points in Toronto’s 106-94 victory, ruining Bryant’s comeback from a torn Achilles’ tendon and silencing a Staples Center crowd that went from anticipatory to antagonistic faster than you could say “Mamba’s Back.”
Most fans’ frustration was directed at Pau Gasol, but Bryant looked a lot like someone who hadn’t played in almost eight months, scoring lightly (nine points), shooting poorly (two for nine) and committing turnover after turnover (eight total). He had eight rebounds, four assists and two steals in 28 minutes.
“I think the last time I had eight months off I was still in the womb,” Bryant said, later adding, “I’m still not sure exactly what I can do.”
His tendon felt “completely fine,” but he admitted his rhythm was “completely out of sync,” be it passing, shooting, whatever.
“There’s a bunch of things I messed up on,” he said. “I can’t wait to watch the film and start criticizing every little thing.”
His turnovers bothered him the most, by far, an important issue with the Lakers down to one healthy point guard (Steve Blake).
“I failed miserably at that,” Bryant said, later giving himself an “F” for his overall game.
Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni rose to his defense, not surprisingly, calling it unrealistic to envision Bryant already in midseason form.
Yet Bryant was more confounding than comforting despite the “We Want Kobe” chant that dribbled down from the upper rows in the fourth quarter.
His first statistic since April 12 was an assist, a pass down low to Robert Sacre for an easy bank shot 42 seconds into the game.
His first shot, though, was an air-balled hook.
There were brief scenes of what he could do, none better than a double-pump left-handed bank from eight feet in the second quarter. Hadn’t seen that in a while from him. Or maybe ever.
Bryant also set up shop on the right wing, confidently drilling a 19-footer over Landry Fields.
But he grimaced after his pass to Jodie Meeks sailed out of bounds, and his 16-foot fade-away was blocked by DeMar DeRozan late in the second quarter despite the crowd’s rising in support of him a few seconds earlier.
Bryant said he didn’t feel like his legs were under him yet. He also wanted to change one other thing. He weighed in at 225 pounds with 8% body fat but wanted to drop a few pounds, he said.
Raptors management seemed to be trying its best to hand the game away, trading Rudy Gay (19.4 points a game) to Sacramento two hours before tipoff, along with two role players.
Not to worry. Johnson, who went to Westchester High, made 14 of 17 shots. DeRozan, who went to USC, scored 26 points as the Raptors beat the Lakers at Staples Center for the first time since 2001, ending an 0-10 stretch.
Not one Lakers starter scored in double figures.
“There’s always that possibility the flow was disrupted” by Bryant’s return, D’Antoni said.
There was scant evidence to support the theory that Gasol’s game would be boosted by Bryant’s return.
He was pushed around on defense, had seven points on three-for-11 shooting and did not play after going to the bench near the midpoint of the third quarter.
“We need him,” D’Antoni said.
There were light boos for Gasol after he missed a free throw early in the third quarter. Then he was jeered after Johnson scored on a put-back over him.
“I wasn’t 100%, but I don’t like making excuses,” said Gasol, who underwent an MRI exam last week that showed a mild sprain in his right ankle. “I try to play through what I have going on. That’s what I’m going to continue to do.”
He didn’t like what Johnson did to him, answering reporters’ questions with a more serious tone than usual.
“As an opponent, a guy like that shouldn’t have that type of night against your team,” Gasol said, adding a mild curse.
Johnson had averaged 9.8 points before Sunday’s game.
The Lakers were a commendable 10-9 without Bryant, who pledged to stay awake into the wee hours of Monday morning while reviewing video of Sunday’s game.
He smiled as he thought of the challenges ahead. There are many, for him and the Lakers.