Kobe Bryant endures pain for team

Updated: January 8, 2011, 8:08 AM ET
ESPNLosAngeles.com

The absence of Kobe Bryant's intensity in practice may have shown itself in the Los Angeles Lakers' less-than-desirable performance during a stretch in December.

Bryant

Bryant had cut his practice time all together this season in "early-to-mid November" because of a balky knee before picking it back up the last several weeks in response to his team's recent struggles, a team source told ESPNLosAngeles.com on Friday.

Bryant's frustration came to a head after a home loss to the Heat on Christmas, a game circled on the calendar since the summer. That loss came on the heels of an upset by the Bucks at Staples Center.

Bryant then vowed to get more involved in practice, and according to the New York Post, his knee is swelling as a result.

"Because I have very little cartilage under my right knee cap," he said, according to the newspaper. "It's almost bone on bone."

In an interview with the Post after Sunday's home loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, Bryant confirmed that he hadn't been going through all phases of practice this season because of the knee issue.

"He manages it very well and that's important that he has the ability to do that," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said before Friday's home game versus the New Orleans Hornets. "It's been an issue since last year. We monitored it all the way through the playoffs. Surprisingly we came out on top and he was able to make adjustments. The operation in the summer helped and he has come back in a way that I think is most appropriate. He limited practice time and now that he's stronger and can adjust a lot to what he has to deal with, he started to practice a little bit and that helps the team out to have them out on the floor with him."

After a 101-97 win over the Hornets on Friday -- a game in which he scored a game-high 25 points on 10-for-19 shooting -- Bryant was asked if people following the Lakers should be worried by the state of his right knee.

"Do I look worried? Did we win last year?" Bryant said. "My knee last year was the size of a balloon and we still won, so I'm not that concerned about it. We just got to be smart and pace things out.

"It's just listening to your body. I do a pretty good job of that and I just felt like now was the time to kind of crank it up and sacrifice a little bit with swelling in the knee, but, we need to get some intensity going."

The Lakers guard has undergone three operations on the knee and had to have it drained during the playoffs last season.

"Until I got it drained the first time during the opening round against the Thunder I could not bend that knee at all," he said, according to the Post. "It was swollen as hell and it hurt like hell. Luckily things got a lot better once I had the procedure."

Jackson said Friday that Bryant consulted with him a while ago to develop a practice strategy as he entered into the latter stages of his career playing on a knee that had been through multiple surgical procedures.

"When I sat down with him two years ago -- it's [actually] three years now -- before the season, I said the issue about getting older is about containing your leg strength and your ability to play due to that," Jackson said. "You're only going to have issues, and some practices are going to have to be monitored and you and I have to reach a point of agreement on this and I'm going to give you the liberty to pick and choose how you want to practice so that we can do this the right way. So this has been going on for a while."

The rest of the Lakers were then brought in on the decision.

"We talked about it as a team," Jackson said. "I'm sure the adjustment to having Kobe on the floor with them is a major adjustment. I think having him out there to practice makes it better for our team, but once they play with him a few games again then they adjust to the fact that he's a guy he's going to break off some of the offense, he's going to chase the ball once in a while, he's going to shortchange some of the things we do to get the ball [moving], and that itself breaks the rhythm a little bit. Players adjust to it, and they're fine."

Bryant vowed to practice more following the Lakers' Christmas Day loss to the Miami Heat and joined the team out on the floor in the first practice following that game, but he has gone back to picking his spots since then, sitting out of Thursday's practice following a back-to-back on Tuesday and Wednesday.

"No, I don't think [Bryant participating in every practice] will continue," Jackson said. "We had two games back-to-back -- I'm not going to practice Fish [Derek Fisher], I'm not going to practice Kobe. Those are just things you don't do in this league right now at their age. They've got 14 years' experience, and there's nothing to gain in that. But come practice day when we have a day off, or we have one game or something, they'll be out there."

At first, things were fine. The Lakers won their first eight games and 13 of 15, prompting talk that the two-time defending champions could surpass the 1995-96 Bulls' record of 72-10. They've been up and down since and are currently 25-11, good for third in the Western Conference.

Bryant's numbers haven't really suffered. He's right at his career averages, posting 25.1 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game.

But he believes his teammates have suffered because he has not been infusing intensity into practice sessions.

"You know how competitive and combative I am on the court," he said, according to the Post. "There's nothing I like better than to practice. In fact, I like practice more than the games, because I get to go at my teammates hard. That's when you find out what they're made of, how much you can push some to get the most out of 'em, and how you have to back off others so you don't lose 'em."

"What can I do that I'm not already doing?" he said, according to the newspaper. "I've increased treatment before and after I play, but there's no way of knowing what's going on under there unless I take an MRI once a month.

"When do I push them? When do I pat them on the back? Every individual is different. Some players you finesse. Some you contest. It's a constant dance. It's a constant search of the perfect rhythm."

The results of Bryant's rededication to practice: The Lakers are 4-2 since Christmas, including the 104-85 disaster against the Grizzlies.

Jackson said he has coached veteran players in the past who similarly sat out of practices to save their bodies for games.

"John Paxson and Bill Cartwright were guys that we didn't practice in the last run there in Chicago," Jackson said. "They were working with patella tendinitis issues so they were limited. Ron Harper was a guy that we had to kind of monitor as we went through the last couple seasons in Chicago and here in L.A. We had to limit his time and actually put him down and adjust the roster and give him a week or so off here and there to regenerate his energy. So we've had to monitor health issues with players that are starters before."

When asked if a 35-year-old Michael Jordan practiced in his final season with the Bulls, Jackson said, "Yes, he still practiced."

ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin contributed to this report.

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