Bryant's mental makeup needs to be matched

November, 28, 2012
11/28/12
12:24
AM PT
McMenamin By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Mike D'Antoni doesn't like to linger much during news conferences these days. Considering he's less than a month removed from knee-replacement surgery, it's understandable he has taken an approach in which he'll expend energy only if it's absolutely necessary.

Talking to reporters doesn't rank high on his energy priority list, even with D'Antoni possessing a personality that allows him to spin a yarn with the best of them.

Yet there he was answering the last question of pregame availability before the Los Angeles Lakers played the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday with a thoughtful response when a writer wondered how Kobe Bryant keeps it up the way he does 17 years into his career.

"The one thing you have to say about Kobe is his intensity, and that goes a long way," D'Antoni said. "As your body gets older, you lose it mentally. You don't want to train. You're just tired. You got a lot of money, and you know what, it's hard. Kobe is not going to let that happen to him. He's too intense and too much of a champion."

Bryant showed that intensity in spades in the Lakers' 79-77 loss to the Pacers. After spending the day "laid up in bed" with flu-like symptoms, according to his Facebook page, Bryant went out and scored 40 points (to his teammates' total of just 37) and brought L.A. back to the brink of a win after the Lakers trailed by as many as 13.

Bryant also had 10 rebounds -- two more than Dwight Howard hauled in and one more than Pau Gasol pulled down.

But there was only one thing Bryant focused on after the game as he coughed his way through five minutes of questions: the turnovers he had coughed up.

"It boggles my mind that I had 10 turnovers," Bryant said. "Those are things that I can minimize, and my responsibility is to pick everybody up. ... The fact is, we had 10 possessions we didn't get looks at the basket because I turned it over."

Yes, Bryant racked up 10 turnovers, nearly matching the total of 11 his teammates had, but those were errors of commission, not omission. A coach can live with a player making mistakes while taking it upon himself to try to make plays. It's tougher to swallow a player not putting himself in position to make plays in the first place.

So, the 114th 40-point game of Bryant's illustrious career wasn't an all-timer for him. His tying 3-pointer with 24.5 seconds left that bailed out teammates Howard and Metta World Peace for combining to go 0-for-4 on free throws in the final minute is moot when mixed with his triple-double that included turnovers.

But it was an example of the type of mental toughness that it takes to succeed in this league.

Gasol went into the game with all the motivation in the world to bounce back after his rough road trip, which was followed by him excusing away his play because of tendinitis in his knees. Gasol went out and connected on just two of nine field goal attempts, getting blocked on five of the misses.

Howard has had a season-long (well, career-long) struggle at the free throw line and went just 3-for-12 from the stripe Tuesday, including his two late misses.

If Gasol shows up, the Lakers' fans let him hear their appreciation. The recent memory of two losses on the road is replaced by the long-term memory of the two championships he helped bring to the franchise.

If Howard hits the free throws, he's a hero for the night through the unlikeliest of scenarios. He starts to escape the stigma as a guy who can't be relied on at the end of games because he's a liability at the line.

Instead, they both have those demons to battle another day. They have the mental burden to bear again.

"It's a mental thing," Gasol said, summing up the reason the Lakers went just 23-for-43 from the free throw line as a team. "And it's a confidence thing. So it's something that you have to work mentally, not just repetition, which you also should get."

You see, it's not just an energy thing, as was the accusation from D'Antoni against his bigs in the Lakers' losses to Sacramento and Memphis. The Lakers had enough energy as a team to hold the Pacers to just 79 points on 36.7 percent shooting while outrebounding them 56-50.

It's an excellence thing.

"He willed it to them, and it wasn't easy," D'Antoni said of Bryant after the game.

It didn't work out for Bryant in the end. L.A. lost to fall to 7-8. But the Lakers wouldn't have had a chance Tuesday if Bryant hadn't entered "Mamba mode," what with Gasol being off, and World Peace, Darius Morris and Antawn Jamison combining to shoot 2-of-21 from the field.

Bryant came mentally prepared to play, even if his body wasn't totally on board.

"It just drains you," Bryant said after the game of his sickness. "Just drains you."

It will be just as much of a drain on him when he's healthy if he has to continue to be the only guy on the roster willing himself to a higher level on a nightly basis.

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Kobe Bryant
PTS AST STL MIN
25.2 4.8 1.4 35.4
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsJ. Hill 8.6
AssistsK. Bryant 4.8
StealsK. Bryant 1.4
BlocksE. Davis 1.2