Despite numbers, Bryant has last word
It has been more than three years since Kobe Bryant last made a comeback after missing time because of an injury. On Dec. 10, 2006, Bryant returned -- from, what else, an ankle sprain -- to score 34 points on 13-for-25 shooting in a win against the San Antonio Spurs.
We questioned whether we'd see that same Bryant in Memphis, Tenn., on Tuesday -- out to prove that he's just as effective post-injury as he was pre-, and determined to again put his stamp on the team -- or whether he would assume more of a facilitator's role and attempt to acquiesce to the brand of team ball the Los Angeles Lakers played in his five-game absence.
He scored plenty in L.A.'s 99-98 escape of a win, but he used his defense to activate his offense, converting three steals and two blocks into fast-break opportunities to ease his way into 32 points on an ultra-efficient 13-for-19 shooting line.
It would be difficult for anyone who watched the game to argue that Bryant wasn't exemplary on offense. About the only time he strayed from the triangle was in the waning moments of the fourth quarter when he improvised a fall-away jumper and another pull-up 3 before the defense could get set, of course setting up his sixth game winner of the season on a 3-pointer with 4.3 seconds left coming off a double screen.
But the Lakers merely split those two games.
Coming into Tuesday's game, the Lakers were just 14-7 this season when Bryant scored 30-plus points. Of course, that .667 winning percentage is reached by only two teams in the league other than the Lakers -- the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic -- but it's also a far cry from L.A.'s actual .750 clip.
There is not some magical plateau causing his teammates to become disengaged when Bryant's scoring total moves past the 28.8 average, but clearly the team benefits when he has shot distribution on his mind as much as shot-making.
Bryant is shooting 46.1 percent from the field this season, which is the seventh-highest average of his 14-year career, but a lot of that has to do with the fracture on the right index finger of his shooting hand. He was shooting 49.3 from the floor before the injury, and the team expected that to drop as the cost of doing business because it was still reaping the rewards of all the defensive attention Bryant drew even when he played injured.
There is all sorts of statistical evidence concluding the Lakers are actually better when Bryant isn't the leading scorer. It seems odd that the franchise's all-time leading scorer and one of the top 15 scorers in NBA history has his team play better when somebody else leads. But if you believe the numbers, it's true.
Los Angeles Lakers
There are two extreme stats associated with Bryant's scoring we also should consider. L.A. is 9-1 when he scores 15 or fewer points (including the games he missed) and is 10-1 when he scores 35 or more points.
Explaining the low end is easy. We know that L.A. fared well without him, going 4-1, and as for the other five wins when Bryant was relatively quiet, two were blowouts in which he hardly played in the fourth quarter, and the other three were games when he was really feeling his injuries and the team stepped up in his stead.
Explaining the high end basically is agreeing that, as one of the elite scorers ever to play, when Bryant is hot, he can pretty much single-handedly lead the team to a win. The Lakers were 6-0 in last year's postseason when Bryant scored 35-plus points, too. So there's nothing wrong with the team feeding Bryant when he's locked in.
It all comes down to the in-between.
All the numbers won't mean anything if Bryant's brain is slow to compute he is taking too many shots on a night when he just doesn't quite have it. It comes down to his recognition. If Bryant believed in the power of all this statistical analysis, he wouldn't have had a 40-point game on 59.3 percent shooting against the Houston Rockets in the playoffs last season with Shane Battier, the "no-stats All-Star," using statistically dictated defense on him.
While we're watching Bryant mesh back in with the Lakers for these last 26 games before the postseason, the point isn't to have a sheet ready to fill in with three check boxes next to "Kobe Bryant < 30 points"; "Pau Gasol > 14 points"; and "Lamar Odom > 10 points" with a big "= WIN" box ready to check off if all three are filled.
Probably the most dramatic moment of the Lakers' season was Bryant's buzzer-beater against the Miami Heat. It was the first of Bryant's slew of game winners this season -- those against the Milwaukee Bucks, Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks, Boston Celtics and, of course, Memphis, would follow -- and it came in a game in which Bryant scored 33 points. It was in the no-man's land of his scoring totals because L.A. does so well when he scores under 30 and so well when he scores over 35, and he took 25 shots to get there. But it won the game and encapsulated everything Bryant brings to the team. How many other players in the league make that shot?
If you really want to question how the Lakers are with Bryant back in the lineup, don't analyze his final line in the box score but rather observe what he's doing. Watch to see how Bryant feeds the post in the first half. Watch to see how much he involves Gasol in the second half. Watch to see how many times he skips the pass to the open man in the corner for the shot, the way he did the last time L.A. played in Memphis when he found Ron Artest instead of pulling up for the near impossible attempt on his own.
The numbers can say what they want, but Bryant will have the last word.
Alok Pattani of ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report. Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.