Commentary

Bryant should play if he can

Lakers fans and pundits need to start trusting Bryant on his injuries

Updated: February 9, 2010, 4:46 PM ET
By Dave McMenamin | ESPNLosAngeles.com

The Lakers have now won two straight games against tough opponents without Kobe Bryant in the lineup.

Does that mean the Lakers can handle their business without Bryant? Sure, for a little while.

Does it mean the Lakers are better without Kobe Bryant? Of course not.

Bryant listened to what his body was telling him in sitting out the last two games. The move interrupted his streak of 235 consecutive game played and denied him the joy he gets from playing in a hostile environment like Portland, and against a fierce rival like San Antonio.

He admitted it was a difficult decision Monday night, saying he felt a little lost in the locker room getting treatment while his team was out on the court playing: "I didn't know what the [heck] to do."

Bryant is tough and proud. He always wants to be in the action. But if he decides to play Wednesday against Utah, and in the All-Star Game over the weekend, it won't be a reckless choice, it won't be in order to prove anything. It will be because he's ready, and because the Lakers need him.

"People make too much about [my insistence on playing]," Bryant said after the game Monday. "I'm not an idiot. I'm not going to run through a wall just to run through a wall. If it's an injury where I feel like I can play through it and have it heal while I'm playing, then I'll play. But, if it's the type of injury I feel will get worse when I play, then I won't."

It was Bryant's decision -- not Phil Jackson's, not trainer Gary Vitti's -- to sit the last two games. And it will be up to him to decide when he's ready to come back.

Will he be 100 percent? That's unllikely. But he has shown before he can play under control while nursing injuries, and even when he's not at his best, when he plays the right way, he absolutely makes the Lakers a better team.

There's no sense in him sitting for the sake of sitting him.

Seeing how his teammates played in his absence was encouraging, but Bryant said Monday he was eager to get back: "If I'm ready to go, I'll play." He isn't waiting for his ankle to be at 100 percent, the route Denver's Carmelo Anthony is currently taking, either. "If I can move, I'm good," Bryant said. "If I can move and get to the basket, I'm good."

Lakers coach Phil Jackson said he wished he had Bryant available to him before the Spurs game, calling him the "X factor that wins ballgames."

That's what this is all about for the Lakers, winning games now so they'll have a higher seed and home court advantage in the playoffs. Winning now makes it easier to win games in April, May and June when it really matters.

Not having Bryant in the lineup means missing averages of 28.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.7 steals to the team's statistical production, but he's not just numbers. He's the focal point for the opponents' defense whenever he is on the court, and creates mismatches and open looks for his teammates when he's double-teamed.

He is also a dynamic defender, even when he's hobbled, because of his intelligence in making the right reads and rotations and his get-all-up-in-you aggression.

"[Even if he's not 100 percent healthy] obviously he's going to draw a defender and that takes away from help defense regardless of whether he's active or inactive out there as an offensive player," Jackson explained. "Defensively, he's got the knowledge to get guys around and move things through, and people are unwillingly to attack that part of the floor [that he occupies] because of his ability to steal the ball or [fear] they'll lose the ball or whatever."

"When he does play, even though he's not 100 percent, if he's 90 percent, he still gives us the right ingredients."

The last time Bryant missed two straight games was Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 of 2006, the first two games of the '06-07 season. Los Angeles won both of those games too, thanks to Lamar Odom averaging 28.0 points over the pair of games, but overall, L.A. is just 10-14 since the start of the 2004-05 season (when Shaquille O'Neal left town) without Bryant in the lineup.

I've heard the suggestion this Kobe-less time will be good for the Lakers because they will learn how to win without him, but I'm not buying it.

When it comes to winning what they're really after in June -- the O'Brien Trophy -- it will be most certainly with Bryant in there, having the ball run through him, encouraging teammates to react, making other teams adjust to what he does and what he might do. So really, how valuable is the lesson of living without him?

This isn't meant to discredit how well the Lakers played Monday, because they played great, but don't let the Spurs game fool you into thinking this is something they can consistently sustain without Bryant. Pau Gasol had his best game of the season, Derek Fisher shot practically double his usual shooting percentage, Sasha Vujacic scored eight points and didn't miss a shot. Lamar Odom and Ron Artest put up big numbers but basically divvied up Bryant's 22.4 shots per game average amongst themselves and their combined 12-for-29 total (41.4 percent) registered well below Bryant's 46.1 shooting percentage.

Their defense was superb and made up for Andrew Bynum's absence (out with a bruised right hip) as well, but things get tougher on the road.

Wednesday's game in Utah might just be game No. 54 out of 82 on the schedule, but it's an important one to win because the Lakers already lost there earlier in the season, and because the Jazz are the hottest team in the league, winners of eight straight games and 12 of their last 13.

It's not worth sitting Bryant "just because" and risking giving the Jazz the feeling they can or should beat L.A. in the playoffs because they downed them twice in the regular season.

Before the game Jackson said that his team didn't feel like it had a sense of dominance in the West, and after the game said he thought Utah was playing the best basketball in the conference right now.

"I know we're [five games ahead of] Denver, but they've beaten us twice," Jackson said. "We don't feel like we're sitting out here all by ourselves. Maybe we are. But it feels like we still have to keep playing and winning."

Give the Kobe-less Lakers credit for how they handled things while the Mamba was missing, but have faith in bringing Bryant back if he thinks he's ready.

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Mark Simon from ESPN Stats & Research contributed to this report.

Dave McMenamin

ESPNLosAngeles.com