- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Phil Jackson said before the Lakers' workmanlike 104-96 win on Friday over the Timberwolves that Kobe Bryant had "sacrificed some of his game" to make Los Angeles' big-man production "available and positive" during L.A.'s current five-game winning streak.
After Bryant dished out a season-high 13 assists against Minnesota, seven of those coming in the first eight minutes of the first quarter to set the unselfish, triangle-sharpening tone for the evening, I'm not so sure Jackson shouldn't have said Bryant has merely "compromised" his game.
You see, with a sacrifice, you give something up. In Kobe's case, he was reducing shot attempts so Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum (at least in the first half before he injured his left Achilles tendon) could add to their totals.
With compromise, you give something to get something.
Bryant might have sublimated his scoring mentality to get the Lakers' 14 feet of frontcourt off, but rather than chalking it up as a loss, he engaged his inner playmaker. He facilitated or, as he calls it, "orchestrated" Friday, but this performance was so frenetic and contagious it was like the violin portion of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir."
Bryant's passing led to the team picking up assists on 24 of its 34 baskets, or 70.5 percent. On the season, the team has assisted on only 54.8 percent of its made field goals.
"It just depends on the defense," Bryant said matter-of-factly, with towels draped over his body as he sat in front of his locker. "I just make them pick their poison. Either they play me man up to start the game or they don't. They decided to come after me, so I hit my guys and they made shots."
Jackson said he thought the Lakers could have made even more shots off of Bryant's feeds.
"He tried to get other guys involved and Ron didn't hit his shots, Fish didn't hit his shots, so it wasn't that successful," Jackson said, referencing Ron Artest and Derek Fisher. "If some of those guys hit a shot, he'd probably have 20 assists tonight rather than 13."
To be fair, Artest was 4-for-7 from the field. Fisher was the main culprit, going 0-for-6.
Despite lamenting the missed opportunities, Jackson said Bryant taking on the role of willing passer is, "Always a good sight, a good energy for the team."
With Bynum out indefinitely because of his Achilles injury, and the versatile, yet passive Lamar Odom set to return to the starting lineup in the big man's absence, the Lakers' post priority diminishes and the onus will fall back on Bryant's shoulders to pick up his scoring. This, while keeping in mind what his distributing can do in developing his team's collective confidence in any given game.
"There are going to be nights when Kobe goes again to be the featured guy in this offense and it's going to lay in his hands a lot of times, but it's great to have the ability to take a rest, not have to work as hard, drop it off to these big guys and let them go to work inside where it's higher percentage things," Jackson said before the game.
When asked if the Lakers would continue to inundate the lane without Bynum as an option, Jackson referenced Gasol's quiet second half that consisted of six points on 2-for-5 shooting.
"If we don't get anything accomplished in there [it will shift back to Bryant]," Jackson said. "You have to go where success is over the course of a game."
Jackson's plan to spread out some of the scoring pressure throughout the roster to give Bryant some respite during the grueling 82-game regular season was a prudent one, but with the playoffs only 13 games away, it's as good a time as any to put Bryant back in the driver's seat because that's how the Lakers are going to navigate the course through April, May and June toward a potential repeat championship.
Bryant has a will most eventually succumb to, whether you're a teammate falling in line to his leadership, or an opposing player falling mercy to his skill.
"He's just too good," Minnesota coach and former Lakers assistant Kurt Rambis said about his old pupil after the game. "He's too good. He's too talented. He's too smart. There's just nothing you can do.
"The thing that's been fun to watch, even when I was with the Lakers and now, is he continues to evolve his game."
Rambis was talking about the evolution of Bryant's career, but the metamorphosis can also apply on a smaller scale to this season.
Bryant is ready to take control of the team once again.
"You can start sniffin' it," Bryant said after the game, a smile creeping across his face.
The Lakers have followed that nose to the scent of champagne showers four times before.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
2hMichael C. Wright