The NBA's big picture comes into focus

Friday, February 14, 2003

While everybody was busy reminiscing about Michael or imagining LeBron as The Man, a different picture filled up the frame. Someone you assumed couldn't get better just did.

"Everybody's kind of using my energy and we're using it to play well," Kobe Bryant said. "That makes the game fun."

Bryant has been around long enough and won so much that sometimes it's easy to take him for granted. But just 24 and still buzzing over the recent birth of a daughter, he's playing the best basketball anybody has seen in almost 15 years. And that's hardly the only way he's breathed life back into the Lakers.

With Bryant scoring at least 35 points each time out, Los Angeles has won seven straight, climbing to within a half-game of the last playoff spot in the Western Conference. The last time anybody went on that kind of scoring tear was the winter of 1988, when Jordan spent two weeks trying to whip a ragtag collection of Bulls has-beens and wannabes into a playoff contender.

Dazzling as it seemed at the time, that run was born out of frustration. Jordan had already tried calling out his teammates publicly, and when they didn't respond to words, he tried rebuking them with deeds. It was another few seasons before the lessons sunk in, but the last time anybody in the franchise questioned Jordan's command.

We'll never know whether leadership is another one of Jordan's traits that Bryant mastered by studying, or whether the Lakers' desperate situation simply demanded that he step forward. It hardly matters. But it's certainly no coincidence Bryant's own run comes a few weeks after he needled his sidekicks in the newspapers.

"I drive a hard bargain," Bryant said last week. "Is it difficult to do it? No, it's difficult not to. Maybe a couple of years ago there might have been a feeling of, 'Oh, he's too young to be telling me this.' But it's not like there's a choice here."

Wednesday night's game in Denver was a perfect example of what Bryant has been doing. The night before, he'd dropped 42 points on the Nuggets in Los Angeles. Denver rookie coach Jeff Bzdelik responded by matching the very physical Donnel Harvey against Bryant and not a minute passed before he accidentally hit Bryant in the mouth.

Instead of an apology, Bryant wanted Denver's heart. He scored the Lakers' first nine points, collected 20 by the end of the first quarter, and 51 before his own coach benched him at the end of the third.

"It wasn't like I was angry," Bryant said afterward, "but it sharpened my focus. It made me pay attention to details more."

Bryant's pushing and pulling has been made much easier by Shaquille O'Neal's return to form, if not shape. The big fella has been sensitive to questions about his weight -- guesstimated at about 350 pounds -- but if he can continue to improve as the season drags, the yin and yang of a resurgent Shaq and a purposeful Kobe could prove enough to win the Lakers a fourth consecutive title.

"When you have a great one-two punch, and one is going like that, the other falls back," O'Neal said. "I don't mind falling back. Kobe and I have a lot of discussions. People talk about who's carrying the team. We don't care. While he's doing that, I'm resting and getting better and stronger. I'll be all right for the playoffs, and you know how I am in the playoffs."

First, though, the Lakers have to get there. Homecourt advantage at any stage of the playoffs seems like a dream at the moment, and one the Lakers can't afford to dwell on. Looking ahead is how they fell so far behind in the first place.

Coach Phil Jackson's teams in both Chicago and Los Angeles had a way of picking up steam just about the time the postseason rolled into view. Part of that is the result of Jackson's philosophy: He likes his players to figure out what's important by themselves. It's why he turns his back on them during the occasional timeout, why he lets players stay in games with foul trouble and why he won't limit their shots, even when they come outside the triangle system he insists on playing.

The difference between the two teams, up to now, is that Jackson had Jordan along to ride shotgun in Chicago, to provide the kind of leadership that ensured everybody knew their role and filled it. In Los Angeles, most of Jackson's energy has been devoted to meshing the egos and talents of Kobe and Shaq. That's one reason why neither emerged as a vocal leader until now.

The maturity Bryant is displaying shouldn't come as a surprise. He played so well in the first half of the season, especially leading into the All-Star break, there seemed to be little room for improvement. Yet not only has he improved, by sheer force of will, he's pulled an entire team up the next rung of the ladder.

And isn't that what The Man is supposed to do?

Jim Litke is a sports columnist for The Associated Press.

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