- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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TORONTO -- Kobe Bryant gave his critics the finger on Sunday.
Yeah, that finger.
His turnaround toss from 37 feet away that left his heavily bandaged right index finger as time expired rimmed out, denying him his fourth buzzer-beating game winner of the season, but there's no denying anymore that he makes the Lakers better when he's on the court, nine fingers and all.
Bryant's performance on Sunday should put to rest any thoughts that he needs to rest.
He shot south of 50 percent (11-of-24) for the eighth time in his past 10 games, but would the Lakers even have had a chance in their 106-105 loss to the Raptors if not for Bryant's 27 points, career-high 16 rebounds, game-high nine assists and a steal and a block mixed in?
When Bryant made his annual trek to the Mecca of hoops, Madison Square Garden, on Friday, the national media assembled implored whether he planned on shutting it down to let the finger heal considering his recent shooting struggles (he came into Sunday shooting just 24-for-74 -- 32.4 percent -- in his last three games) and he scoffed at the notion.
"I've thought about it [for about two, three seconds]," Bryant said. "It's broken. I have a break in two places. It's not going to go anywhere if I sit out. I can still play and let it heal on its own. If I hit it, it's not going to break anymore. It's just going to be sore. The healing is still the same if I sit out."
What wouldn't be the same is the time it would take the Lakers to recapture the championship essence that has eluded them this season. Bryant is leading the search party to find the hunger that was the cohesive force behind his team's title run, but now has gone missing.
Bryant's mounting missed shot totals have caused fans to play doctor like they all stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but Lakers coach Phil Jackson hasn't succumbed to any outside pressure to sit his star. Jackson said early on when No. 24 fractured his finger 24 games ago, that an injured Kobe is better than no Kobe at all.
There's so much he does right even when that big ol' wrap on his trigger finger looks so wrong.
"He did a lot of great things out there," Jackson said after playing Bryant for 40 minutes against Toronto. "I thought he created a lot of opportunities for a lot of guys."
Said Bryant: "I'm fine. [My finger] should be the last of our concerns."
At the top of that list of concerns is the sudden funk the Lakers find themselves in after falling to 1-2 after the first three games of their eight-game, 14-day road trip that was supposed to define their season.
"We're going through a malaise a little bit," Bryant said. "Things kind of plateaued right now. This stage of the season it happens, but you still got to put a lot of effort and kick it into a high gear and get it going."
Bryant addressed the lackadaisical play after the Cavs game Thursday, joking (at least we think it was a joke) that he would do what Homer Simpson does to Bart and strangle his teammates in practice to raise their intensity level for the rest of the road trip.
His diatribe didn't fall upon deaf ears. The Lakers played with a finer focus on Friday in New York, even amidst the spectacle that always accompanies Madison Square Garden.
But if Bryant simply sat on the sidelines, trying to heal his damaged digit, he couldn't have had the hands-on effect when implementing his message. It's one thing for Bryant to talk about the need for Pau Gasol to be aggressive and for Gasol to say that he agrees with Bryant. It's another thing when Bryant is on the court with Gasol in the fourth quarter of a close game, spoon feeding the Spaniard.
"I wanted to make sure my guys stayed involved, make sure they got a good rhythm and we did that for the most part," Bryant said on Sunday.
And it worked, too.
If you told Bryant before the game that Gasol would go off for 22 points and nine rebounds, Andrew Bynum would chip in 21 and nine, Jordan Farmar would score 17 off the bench, the team would outrebound Toronto by 12 and that he'd personally be one assist shy of a triple-double, he'd assume he'd be looking at two straight wins as he boarded the team plane bound for the next leg of the trip in Washington.
The Lakers are 33-11 and Bryant's played in every one of those games for better or for worse.
They have 38 more games in the regular season to get out of their malaise before the playoffs begin, and if a finger, back, elbow and knee haven't cost Bryant any games yet, you better expect to see him in uniform for all 38 of those as well.
He'll be out there and the Lakers will be better for it.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
12mMatt Walks, ESPN.com