- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Forgive Kobe Bryant for not totally getting swept up in the March Madness that's sweeping the nation with the start of the NCAA basketball tournament this week.
After all, he skipped the collegiate ranks, declaring for the NBA draft straight out of Lower Merion High School outside Philadelphia back in 1996.
Bryant said he has not had the time to fill out a bracket yet, but added, "I think Kansas will win the whole thing."
When asked whether he had any special rooting interest in Duke because Mike Krzyzewski recruited him out of high school and later coached him in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Bryant replied: "I pull for any team that wears my shoes. I like to see them go very far."
Ironically enough, the University of Kansas men's basketball team has a sponsorship deal with adidas. Bryant wears Nikes.
Like Bryant, Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who played in the NCAA Division II tournament with the University of North Dakota in the 1960s, had not filled out a bracket and didn't plan to.
"I don't even pay attention to it anymore, it's funny," Jackson said. "I don't even look at it."
The road ahead
The Lakers have two home games against teams, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Washington Wizards, with a combined 35-100 record (.259) ahead of them on Friday and Sunday, but some already are looking ahead to the five-game road trip the team will embark on next week.
"I think this road trip will make or break kind of where we see as far as the top of our conference or not," Jackson said. "We have to go out on the road and win some games."
The Lakers lead the Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks by four games for best record in the West. Jackson was asked to list the most pressing priorities facing his team with 14 games left in the regular season, and the coach replied with working on breaking games open when the opportunity arises; improving its offensive execution against zone defense; increasing the bench's energy level and potency; and gaining momentum away from Staples Center.
"As we get going down the stretch, we want to gain momentum; I think I've been saying that for a while," Jackson said. "We started winning some games, we have an opportunity to win some games here and carry a little bit of a winning streak into the road."
Bryant said securing the best record in the conference was "important" but added, "It's not going to win you or lose you a championship."
Andrew Bynum also stressed the opportunity coming up when the team travels through San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Houston, New Orleans and Atlanta.
"We have a good road test coming up," Bynum said. "It should definitely be a fun trip for us. I think we're going to go out there and win the majority of them to really show that we're still capable of winning on the road."
Bryant said that the team's priority or what to work on is "always defense first and our rotations" and is keeping his mind on the Timberwolves and Wizards, even if others are looking past those games a bit.
"I'm not [thinking about the road]; I'm sure [Phil] is as a coach," Bryant said. "We kind of got to balance each other out sometimes. If he's projecting down the road, then I have to stay in the moment. If I'm projecting down the road, he has to stay in the moment. But it's a big trip coming up, no doubt."
Bynum's brace battle
In the Lakers' current four-game winning streak, Bynum is averaging 20.0 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game, a significant uptick from his season averages of 15.1, 8.4 and 1.5, respectively.
Bynum credits the improvement to several things. First, making defensive stops has gotten him started on the offensive end.
"I think I just kind of started focusing more on the defensive side of the basketball, and it's helped out," Bynum said.
Also, the team's philosophy has shifted toward feeding the post more often.
"PJ's been really, really getting on guys about getting the ball inside, getting us touches, so the team's been following him," Bynum said. "We just got to keep throwing the ball inside, and if we keep getting efficient numbers, I don't think it should stop."
Finally, he's feeling healthy again after missing time before the All-Star break with knee and hip ailments.
"The hip is feeling better day by day. It's not all the way there yet, but tendinitis is always an issue for me, so I've been getting a little bit extra treatment," Bynum said.
Despite how he has bounced back from two major knee injuries in the past two seasons, he is resigned to the fact that he'll always have to wear a brace on his left knee.
"With me, I want to get the brace off, that's what I want to do, and the doctor tells me I can't do that," Bynum said. "That's the only part to me right now that's a little frustrating because it just rubs on my knee and causes other parts of [my] body to have issues. That's my only kind of downer as far as having those injuries. It's not going to get any tighter, so I have to wear it for the rest of my career."
Kobe's Congo court
Mike Trudell reported on the Lakers' official Web site this week that Los Angeles center D.J. Mbenga plans to dedicate a court in his native Congo to Bryant sometime in the near future. Bryant is very impressed by the gesture.
"I'm deeply honored by it," Bryant said. "He and I, since he's been here, we've established a really close relationship, a close bond and every [road] trip, he educates me more and more about the Congo. It's something we've kind of talked about, me planning a trip and going over and visiting and spending some time with him over there."
Walton's catching on to coaching
What started as one-game fill-in duty in Phoenix because assistant coach Jim Cleamons couldn't make the trip has become a regular gig for Luke Walton as he tracks offensive possessions in a notebook while watching games from the bench in street clothes as he continues to rehab a back injury.
"He's bucking against it a little bit, but he's coming through and being a good sport about it," Jackson said about his newest assistant coach. "His penmanship is not very good if you want me to get all into it. His execution is not great yet, but we're going to have him there before the season's out."
Jackson isn't getting too used to having Walton on the coaching staff, however.
"Luke is pushing himself towards sometime in April where he can play regular-season games because we know what he can do for us in the playoffs when he's healthy," Jackson said.
11hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann