HANG TIME WEST – The serpentine path has finally led to where Kobe Bryant will take the court tonight (Raptors-Lakers on NBA TV, pregame 9 p.m.) for the first time since he blew out his left Achilles’ tendon on April 12, a journey from the immediate speculation he could miss all 2013-14 to the stomp on the gas pedal by the Lakers that he could make it back for opening night and finally the reality check of missing the first 19 games. Everything kept changing.
Yet nothing changed. There is still no way to know where Bryant will be physically after a honeymoon period to get his timing back, because, yes, he is Kobe Bryant, but he is also 35 and the same guy a year ago, before the major injury, leaning to retirement amid concerns over how much more his body can take. How the return against the Raptors at Staples Center will impact the rest of the rotation is a difficult read when one of the wings, Nick Young, is scoring, and another, Jodie Meeks, is shooting very well. And, it is impossible to gauge how the roster filled with new teammates will react to playing off Kobe. No less an interested observer than coach Mike D’Antoni raised the concern himself, saying, “I think we have to guard against it because I think the thing that you have to watch is that a lot of times they’ve never played with Kobe so a lot of times they’ll stand around and watch him. You don’t understand we’ve been playing a certain way. We’ll have to guard against that.”
There is the one unquestioned aspect, though, and the reason the Lakers instantly get better around 6:30 p.m. Pacific Standard Time: that attitude. Kobe Bryant is back and so is the energy force field.
He can drive a team like few others, a demanding personality that commands the locker room as much as his play – pending health-related updates, of course – captivates on the court. That is the part of the conversation that cannot be overlooked when debating the ripple effects of the return. Coach Bryant can insist while wearing a suit on the bench and teammate Kobe can ignite in practices while working closer to the active list, but the true voice always comes from players actually in the games, and not just in the case of the Lakers in December 2013.
“Obviously he’s a very dominant personality, so I think it rubs off on the whole team,” Meeks said. “Having him back definitely gives us a lot of confidence.”
Pleased with the attitude of the team and not wanting to make it seem the rescue squad is necessary in that regard, D’Antoni is careful not to say Bryant’s return can energize the team. But “I think what he brings mostly is one of the best players in the game and down in the fourth quarter you’re not searching for what we’re doing,” the coach said. “Just his overall ability to be able to play well. I think he’ll try to get guys to load up on him in the sense of, ‘OK, he’s carrying the wagon. Let’s everyone jump on. Let’s go.’ But I do think early we have to be careful about just standing around watching.” At the same time, the Lakers are 4-2 in games decided by five points or less, so they’re not desperate for a closer.
Bryant, scheduled to immediately move into the starting lineup and play in the 20s minutes wise, is returning to a team that is 10-9 without its best player and mostly without Steve Nash, and there is an emotional value in that as well. The Lakers are not shooting the ball well, aren’t getting to the line and are struggling on the boards, and still they are above .500 heading into home games against the Raptors and Suns.
“It’s big,” said Xavier Henry, a key reserve. “We’re all playing hard right now. To bring him back to our team is going to be big for our confidence, knowing we have another guy out there that’s ready to fight to win some games.”