Court-to-court days have become routine for Bryant, Lakers
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- It's happened before. It will happen again. At some point today, a private jet will land in the Los Angeles area and a waiting limousine will whisk Kobe Bryant through the historically horrible LA traffic to the Staples Center in time, his teammates and coaches hope, for Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Spurs. Los Angeles needs him. The Lakers trail the best-of-seven series, 2-1, with the home team winning each time.
Making the jump from Colorado courtroom to Los Angeles basketball court has been a fact of life this season for Bryant and the Lakers. As he fights the rape charges against him, the NBA season continues, necessitating the private transportation in this very public of lives. Tonight will be the fourth time this season -- second in the playoffs -- that Bryant will make the commute from Eagle, Colo., to the Staples Center for a game.
His coach is used to it. Phil Jackson shrugged his rather broad shoulders yesterday when asked about the distraction, noting that it has happened often this season (sometimes between games). The players are used to it. As Karl Malone noted, "Sometimes, when you go through adversity throughout the season, it prepares you. It was like that during the season. In the first round of the playoffs against Houston, we did it. You kind of get accustomed to it. Whether you like it or not, it is what it is. We just try to go out and deal with it."
If history is any judge, the late-arriving Bryant will not be hurt by a missed practice (yesterday) or a missed shootaround (this morning). If history is any judge, the Lakers will deal with it, too. They are 3-0 in the previous three Kobe-at-the-11th-hour situations.
Game 1: Dec. 19 against the Nuggets. This was the only game of the three that Bryant's late arrival prevented him from starting. He showed up in the first quarter, then started the second and played 31 minutes, scoring 13 points on 5-of-14 shooting. He also made the winning shot as the buzzer sounded in a 101-99 victory. Alas, the winning shot came on a play that was not called for him and was necessitated because he had busted a few previous plays. That's Kobe.
Game 2: March 24 against the Kings. Bryant started and scored 36 points on 11-of-23 shooting (12 of 12 from the line) as the Lakers routed Sacramento, 115-91. He ended up playing 37 minutes.
Game 3: April 19 against the Rockets. This was the second game of the Houston series. Bryant started off "very shaky" according to Jackson. "He then untracked himself." Bryant scored 36 points on 9-of-20 shooting (16 of 17 from the line) and played 45 minutes in a 98-84 victory.
Jackson said the biggest problem with Bryant's back-and-forth is not the actual game itself (and the results seem to bear that out).
"He has not shown a great deal of difficulty coming back from these kinds of trips and playing that [night]," Jackson said. "The difficulty falls the day after, two days after those trips are over. Obviously, we're concerned. It's a critical part of the year. We're going to have to deal with it. What we get from him, we're thankful for.
"We're going to have to have a very potent Kobe to win."
The drill has been established. Jackson and Bryant talked Sunday night after the game and planned to talk again last night. Bryant was given a videotape of Game 3 to study on the way to and from Colorado. Once he gets back to Los Angeles tonight, depending on the time, he and Jackson will meet again and go over any last-minute changes or plans that have arisen out of the missed practice sessions. Then, the Lakers hope, it will be Kobe as usual.
But, as Malone noted, the Lakers cannot arrive expecting Kobe the Cavalry.
"We can't expect Kobe to come out and save us," the Mailman said. "We have to come out and continue to play. If you look at his track record since he's been doing these kinds of things, he's played extremely well. But you can't really bank on it. Just because he's coming back, we can't expect [a great game]. What he's doing is tough on anybody. It's mentally draining as well." . . .
The Spurs practiced in Santa Monica at the Crossroads School, alma mater of Baron Davis and Austin Croshere. To a man, they vowed to forget their Game 3 no-show and come back looking more like the team that won 17 straight games until getting thrashed Sunday. "We played as if we thought somebody was going to give us something rather than trying to take something, which surprises me and disappoints me at the same time," coach Gregg Popovich said. Tim Duncan delivered one of the worst outings of his stellar career, missing shots (he was 4 for 14), making bad decisions (6 turnovers), and generally looking like Will Perdue in the 105-81 defeat. On the plus side, he played only 35 minutes. "I will be more aggressive," Duncan said. "I will be more assertive. At the same time, I'm not going to go out there and force things to make the game my game because if you work that way, it works against you. But I am a big part of what this team does." The Spurs have not lost two straight since dropping games at Sacramento and at Golden State March 14-15.
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