Commentary

Kobe's hot when Lakers need him most

Updated: January 2, 2010, 9:29 PM ET
By Dave McMenamin | ESPN Los Angeles

Kevin Martin walked through the tunnel toward the team bus, still shaking his head in disbelief when he ran into his old teammate Ron Artest.

"That's the first time I've seen him do it in person," Martin said, recalling his front-row seat on the Sacramento bench for Kobe Bryant's third game-winning buzzer beater of the season -- this one a deep 3 from the corner to give the Lakers a 109-108 New Year's Day victory.

"Oh my God."

While Martin evoked the heavens talking about Bryant's shot, Kobe said his first thoughts after the ball went through the net alluded to the underworld:

"Hell yeah."

The shot merely punctuated the current spectacular scoring streak that Bryant has been on. He finished with 39 points on Friday, after averaging 38.2 points in his last five games, including a season-high 44 against Golden State on Tuesday.

"I don't look at it like a hot streak because it's not like my jump shot has been feeling like I've been on fire," Bryant said. "I'm just playing really well and taking what the defense gives me and sometimes when we kind of get stuck in the mud, I kick it up another notch."

Whether he'll admit to it or not, Bryant's on some kind of roll right now and as his body breaks down part by part, he has only picked up his game piece by piece. Fracture the index finger on his shooting hand and he'll still lead the team in scoring. Ask the Timberwolves. Bend his left knee like you bend a paper clip used to jimmy a lock and he'll still drop 40. Ask the Thunder.

Strain the elbow on his shooting arm and he'll still knock down two dagger 3s in double overtime to win the game. Ask the Kings.

"He gets motivated [and] activated by injuries," Phil Jackson said. "It's like saying you can't do something and then he has to go out and prove it that he can do it. It's just one of those things about him that [makes him] unique. I think it challenges him."

Give him less to work with, he'll do more.

He is first in the league in scoring at 30.6 points per game, which is remarkable considering it's his 14th season in the league and he shares the court with Pau Gasol and Artest, two players who require their share of shots. He continues to pass milestone after milestone. The next one up: With just 15 points, he'll pass Patrick Ewing for 15th on the NBA's all-time scoring list.

Bryant says the team doesn't need him to score at such a rapid rate and that his contribution is just "icing on the cake," but the truth is, at least recently, the Lakers have needed every single point Bryant has scored.

Los Angeles is 4-2 over its past six games and could easily be 0-6 in the stretch if Bryant was just hitting for his season average and not on such a scoring binge. Do the math -- he's putting up eight points more per game and L.A. beat Oklahoma City by three, Sacramento by nine, Golden State by six and Sacramento again by one.

John Mayer once said that the guitar is the world's best airbrush, joking that his music helped him overcome his looks when it came to girls. If the guitar is tops, then Kobe Bryant has to be the next best option because his dominance covers up a lot of his team's flaws.

The Lakers have given up more than 100 points in six straight games. Andrew Bynum has now gone 21 straight games without grabbing double-digit rebounds. Lamar Odom has been inconsistent. Artest is out with lingering effects from a concussion. The bench looks lost.

Yet the Lakers keep winning, thanks to Bryant.

What happens when this streak dries up? What happens when he has an (albeit rare) off night?

Having an offensive machine like Bryant at your disposal can be a luxury, but it also can become a crutch.

It's a dilemma the Lakers ran into in 2005-06, when Bryant averaged 35.4 points per game, the highest single-season average of his career. That team relied on him to score so much that it couldn't compete when he was less than stellar. It went 18-9 (.667) when Bryant scored 40 or more points, but just 27-28 (.491) when he didn't.

"We've had to go through periods like this before," Jackson said. "He's ready, able and willing -- more than willing -- to shoulder that load."

Gasol said it's in the team's best interests to ride Kobe while it can.

"He's shooting the ball at a very high percentage and he's not always going to shoot like that," Gasol said. "We understand that. I think he understands that too. But when he's feeling it and the shots are going down, he's going to keep shooting it. I have no problem with that."

Bryant played 47 minutes and 15 seconds on Friday, resting for just 45 seconds of game time. He said after the game that he felt fine and he certainly had enough lift in his legs to rise up for his picture-perfect jumper to end it, but that's asking for too much of a body that's as banged up as Bryant's is right now.

It's the Kobe Bryant Scoring Ride and the Lakers are strapped in at their own risk.

Dave McMenamin

ESPNLosAngeles.com