What a difference two weeks makes for Kobe Bean Bryant.
On January 1st, 2012, the Black Mamba shot an abysmal 6-28 from the field. Cynics all over the NBA were questioning Bryant’s shot selection, especially with Andrew Bynum’s resounding return the night before. In his first game back, Bynum recorded an efficient 29 points and 13 rebounds while shooting 72 percent (13-18), a tad better than Bryant’s shooting percentage. Bryant’s wrist injury appeared to be affecting him more than he led on. Earlier in the season he was botching routine plays and turning the ball over an uncharacteristic amount. Even when Bryant got to his pet spots, he was unable to convert. Perhaps all the injuries in his shooting hand are beginning to catch up to him.
On top of all that, four days after the fiasco in Denver, the Lakers were ran out of the building again, this time in Portland. What’s more concerning is the Nuggets and the Blazers are two teams that look like they have a legitimate chance to supplant the Lakers in the Western Conference standings this year; and the Lakers’ flaws were exposed by both teams.
Then something clicked. Since Kobe and coach Mike Brown meticulously dissected game film on the flight back to Los Angeles after the Denver game, our hero has been on an absolute tear. He’s been the driving force behind three of the four last victories. The Lakers were trailing the basement dwelling Warriors by four points at halftime before Kobe proceeded to score 17 points in the third quarter, punctuated by a buzzer beating three, and the Lakers haven’t lost since Kobe turned it on. Over the past five games, Bryant has made 69 of 134 shots (51 percent). In fact, Kobe’s 130 points in the last three games is the most impressive stretch of individual excellence since his MVP season in 2008 (arguably even more impressive taking his injuries into account).
So what’s behind the Mamba’s recent flurry?
J.A. Adande believes he has a vendetta against the Suns for knocking his Lakers out in the playoffs two years in a row; and the 48-point barrage was his way of retaliating. This theory might be true since the last time Kobe scored more than 48 was against the very same Suns on March 1, 2009, when scored 49. But then how do you explain the performances against the Jazz, Warriors and Cavaliers?
Ric Bucher suggested that Dwight Howard is questioning how much the 33-year-old Laker has left in the tank during a recent episode of SportsCenter. This is a strong possibility, seeing as Kobe’s career has been based on proving the naysayers wrong.
Adande and Bucher may both be right; inspiration does come in many forms (also see: ESPN ranking Kobe the seventh best player in the NBA before the season even started).
I have a hunch of my own though.
In terms of X’s and O’s, Bryant is now receiving the ball on the wing as opposed to the middle of the floor. As a result, he’s using his rejuvenated first step to get to his spot before opposing defenses have a chance to collapse on him. This was most evident in the Suns game when Grant Hill, Steve Nash, Shannon Brown and whoever else took a turn guarding Bryant was turned into a pylon. However, toward the end of the Utah game, as well as the fourth quarter against Cleveland, Bryant reverted to his old ways and he struggled to find space, luckily, against Utah, Pau Gasol was able to bail him out by splashing a corner three. Like it or not, at this stage of this career Bryant does the damage catching the ball on the block before beating his man with a calculated move.
What I really think gets under Kobe’s skin is the aforementioned return of Bynum. Drew’s return has sparked some pressing questions such as is Andrew Bynum now the best offensive big man in the game, and if Bynum keeps playing the way he is does it increase his trade value for Dwight Howard?
Kobe’s probably fuming. The Black Mamba has never liked sharing the spotlight with a big man, no offense to Pau Gasol but he’s clearly Robin to Kobe’s Batman. The last time he was forced to do that, he drove Shaquille O’Neal out of town. For the first time in seven years, when the Lakers are discussed by the media, the main topic of discussion became Andrew Bynum’s emergence and not Kobe’s excellence.
In the public eye, Kobe has been selecting his words carefully. Bryant has gone as far as acknowledging Bynum has surpassed Gasol as the second option on this team. When I brought that up with my friend, he scoffed, saying “that just means Bynum’s the first guy he’ll look off before jacking a shot.” To be fair, until Bynum becomes a guy the Lakers can throw the ball into for a guaranteed bucket, I still trust Kobe’s judgment on the offensive end.
In all seriousness, Andrew Bynum is the key to the future and Kobe is the glue that keeps the present day Lakers competitive. If the Lakers are able to find a happy medium between Kobe selectively attacking off the dribble and facilitating for the twin towers of Gasol and Bynum then there’s a legitimate chance the Lakers can make one more run with their current roster. If not, Bryant’s ego may stunt Bynum’s development. We’ll see how long Kobe can keep this string of impressive scoring outbursts going. The Lakers will continue riding Bryant’s hot hand for as long as they can.
But for now, savor these vintage Kobe performances while they last, as nothing lasts forever. It just seems like Kobe has been playing at this high level for what seems like eternity. Sixteen years deep in Kobe’s career, the fire still burns.