“I just enjoy winning.”
— Kobe Bryant
Kobe, unselfish and carefree, hardly the caricature too often drawn of the 16-year veteran vying for a scoring title at age 34 with 28.9 points per game. All season, the Mamba has remained a voice of reason, preaching everything from increased practice, an improved work ethic, and patience with the development of Showtime2. Lately, in the midst of a four-game losing streak, the calm exterior showed its seams and led #24 to question everyone, even himself. His conclusion, less shots for him, and more shots for his mates.
14 assists, one off of his career high, and Kobe made a loud, clear statement likely to be heard around the league: change is good. Desperate times call for desperate measures. The Lakers season, leaking every conceivable part and fluid a jalopy can, looked headed directly for the scrap heap. Everybody’s name earned consideration for a stretch on the chopping block. Blame used more fingers than two hands could point at. Another loss and even trainer Gary Vitti might have held a presser to address trade rumors concerning him for Dr. James Andrews.
In an unexpected twist of fate, Kobe saved them all; not with his shot, a reasonable expectation following his live tweeting of the 7th anniversary of his 81-point game against the Raptors. Instead, Kobe used his secret weapon.
Absolutely unexpected and brilliant, Kobe’s decision to share led to a 102-84 over the Utah Jazz, a Western Conference playoff team, and an end to a wildly frustrating losing streak. A 15-4 run of Nash and Metta raining threes got the game underway. But, the Lakers graciously let the Jazz back in, only leading 15-13. At this point, the recent Lakers would have lost the lead and spent the rest of the evening chasing the Jazz uphill. Instead, Kobe found Nash for a fade away for his 5th assist of the 1st quarter, and the momentum helped the Lakers extend the lead back out to 26-19. With the score tight in the 2nd, D’Antoni brought in Antawn Jamison and Kobe made sure he was effective. Two assists by Bryant and two makes, including his patented flip shot, by Jamison and the lead was 10 going into the locker room. Kobe’s line was 8 points and 7 assists.
Nash didn’t even register the first of his 2 assists until early in the 3rd, after already notching 9 points. The Jazz, per their nature, would not give in, and, as they closed the deficit again nearing the close of the 3rd, Kobe assisted on four straight plays. A three by Duhon, two threes by Metta, and a reverse jam my Jodie Meeks for Kob’s 12th dime of the game and the Lakers were suddenly back up by 11. Then, the floodgates opened. The Lakers put distance between themselves and an opponent. The route was on. The Lakers concluded the 4th quarter outscoring the Jazz 30-21 for the 102-84 victory.
To add an exclamation to the point, Kobe found Nash and Howard to end the game. Kobe’s philanthropy made life simple for his teammates as the Lakers shot 54% from the field and 43% from three. 6 of his 14 assists went to his point guard and center, as Nash scored 15 on 6-11 shooting and Dwight shot 8-12 for 17 points and 13 rebounds. Metta, recipient of 4 of Kobe’s 14 assists, jacked up 16 shots for 17 points, all five of his makes from 3. Pau used his 25 minutes of bench play efficiently, missing only one of his 8 shots for 15 points and 7 boards.
For years, since approximately 1996, to anyone who might either feign interest or even barely listen, I asserted Kob’s transition to a true Laker legend would require his focus on double digit assists over points. What if Kobe decided to lead the league in dimes? Kobe Bryant, the best point guard in the game? That’s the kind of stuff that makes Keith Jackson quip, “Whoa, Nellie!”
Better late than after the All-Star Break. Although the Lakers inexplicably sit outside of the playoffs by four-and-a-half games, the distance is a ruse. Without confidence, consistency, and better rebounding, the Lakers chase a mirage, an oasis of sparkling summer refreshment in the barren wasteland of their now 3-10 January. The strategy for improvement shrank from quality wins to any wins possible. Sacrifices had to be made. The prospect of rock bottom has evoked some incredible responses. Pau admirably accepts his bench role. Dwight respectfully criticizes his defensive efforts. Kobe turns himself into an even stronger team leader by securing points for his teammates first.
Jazz is improvisation. Powerful artists relinquish their individuality and embrace the collective talents and creativity of the group to make out of this world music. Miles, Monk, Coltrane, and Parker all gave themselves to the game and wrote the notes of history. The melody of a distributing Kobe, the rhythm of an O no longer predicated on a predictable black hole at shooting guard, is beautiful. A philanthropic superstar, dolling out dollops of mashed potatoes at a community center, instead of always carving the turkey, instills a transcendent form of motivation for his team. They begin to realize that they are also responsible, that they are a part of the process as well.
Will the charity continue versus the Thunder on Sunday?
The fortunes of a team that suddenly rely on the actions of everyone, together, equally, well, are always better, which makes the team really tough to stop. OKC understands this fact, and now, as Kobe embraces what could be the final piece to turn this thing around, the Lakers understand it as well.