DALLAS — Of scoring 78 points to pull out two mandatory, down-to-the-wire wins in the last three days, Kobe Bryant said he’s now transitioned into “grumpy mode.”
“And that’s probably not going to change until after June,” said Kobe, who dropped 14 of his game-high 38 points in Sunday’s fourth quarter against the equally desperate Mavericks. “It’s not good for those who are around me frequently, but hopefully the result will be a good one.”
Hey, no need to tell Dwight Howard. Kobe’s been kicking over his sandcastle since October.
Even when Kobe’s answering a question that has nothing to do with the Lakers’ big man, it seems the Mamba has a message to deliver, however indirectly. That appeared to be the case after the 103-99 win when Kobe was asked if he’s appreciative of the way the Lakers have committed massive money under this more punitive collective bargaining agreement to try to maximize his final seasons — a noted contrast to the strategy Mavs owner Mark Cuban has taken with his club.
“Very appreciative,” Kobe started.
And then Kobe sensed an opening, it seemed, to fixate on the 6-foot-11 potential Lakers cornerstone talking to reporters at the other end of the visitors locker room.
“This is one of those franchises, they really take care of their own. They make it a family atmosphere and they really, for those who sacrifice for the organization, play well for the organization, play hard, commit to them, they really do a good job of returning the favor.”
But hey, maybe Kobe was just speaking in generalities, you know, to future free agents who might come aboard.
In the same breath, Kobe complimented Howard’s effort Sunday even though he struggled with early foul trouble and never got going offensively with nine points on 2-for-9 shooting. Howard, who did make three of four free throws late, played solidly on the defensive end, getting two steals and a block, altering other shots and grabbing 13 rebounds in 33 minutes.
“He was fantastic,” said Kobe, who had 12 rebounds and fell three assists shy of a triple-double. “Offensively, we all have a tough night shooting every now and then. He was getting bumped down low and I felt like there were calls being overlooked, but the ball just didn’t go in for him tonight. But he gets those looks the majority of the games, he’s going to put those in the hole. But still, in all, he competed, chased a lot of shots, very active in the screen and roll.
“Dwight really altered the game for us defensively.”
So maybe, just maybe, there’s some budding, if not begrudging, camaraderie going on here. And maybe this little run the Lakers find themselves on, winning three in a row and 8-3 in February to climb to one game under .500 (28-29) for the first time since being 15-16 on Jan. 1, can be trusted.
Grumpy Kobe: “We’re there now. It’s just a matter of putting it together in time to make a good run.”
Coach Mike D’Antoni, acknowledging concern because of the deep hole his team dug, still puffed out his chest: “I’m confident enough, like the rest of them in that locker room, that we can beat anybody any time, anywhere.”
It sounds good, but the Lakers still needed some good fortune at home to fend off Portland, a non-playoff team that’s fast sliding down the West standings. And although the Mavs (25-30) have been winning more recently and Dirk Nowitzki, who had a season-high 30 points and 13 rebounds Sunday, is playing much better, Dallas didn’t look particularly playoff-ready in its two previous wins against bottom-feeders Orlando and New Orleans.
So maybe Steve Nash, adjusting to his own strange season playing off the ball almost has much as he’s got it, is the realist here with 25 games to go and still 2 1/2 games to make up on the eighth-place Rockets.
“I don’t think we’ve really found an identity yet,” said Nash, who played through back pain Sunday and had four assists with 20 points, including a critical 3-pointer when Kobe passed out of a double-team with 1:44 to go for a 99-95 lead. “We have a number of different ways that we play and we’re still trying to find our identity.”
Monday night, the Lakers end a daunting back-to-back in Denver’s thin air where the Nuggets will look to make the Lakers’ lungs burn more than the L.A. smog. Then come home games against down-and-out Minnesota and Atlanta before another a big road challenge at Oklahoma City on March 5.
“They’re all playoff games for us,” Kobe stressed.
This odd season has brought us Kobe the volume scorer, Kobe the facilitator and now Kobe the grump. The latter has carried the Lakers to these last two wins, and apparently isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
“It’s just what I’m supposed to do, honestly,” Kobe said. “It’s about that time. I’m kind of going through a process of facilitating and things like that, and now it’s time to put the whole thing together.”
We shall see.