LAS VEGAS - Kobe Bryant joined his USA Basketball teammates for their first practice for the 2008 Beijing Games yesterday at the Cox Pavilion. But several reporters weren't exactly focused on the Olympics, or the Lakers' demise in the NBA Finals. They wanted Bryant's reaction to former teammate Shaquille O'Neal's freestyle rap last week that was derogatory to the league's MVP.
Bryant took the high road again and again by simply saying: "No comment."
But he was much more talkative about the Lakers' six-game dismissal at the hands of the Celtics.
"It was a good experience for us," Bryant said. "We thought we could have performed much better. But under the circumstances I'm proud of my guys in being so young and facing a team like Boston that's so physical and tough.
"For us to get that experience at a young age is priceless. So we come back next year, guys are 24 and 25 years old, understanding the toughness we need to play at, keeping everything else status quo, but just improving in that area."
Bryant said he wouldn't be surprised if the Lakers and Celtics met in the Finals next year. The return of center Andrew Bynum, who missed the playoffs after knee surgery, would help the Lakers' chances.
"He gives us a presence in the middle that we didn't have in the Finals," Bryant said. "He's a shot-blocker. So now guys coming down the middle, [Boston's Paul] Pierce laying the ball in, he's got to think about that now and shoot floaters because Bynum is naturally a shot-blocker and rebounder."
Bryant played in 103 games during the 2007-08 regular season and playoffs, and will put off having surgery on his right pinkie until after the Olympics.
When asked if he was fatigued, Bryant said, "No. Not really. I feel pretty good."
When asked if he watched the NBA Finals, forward LeBron James of the Cavaliers said, "No. I was busy. It wasn't something that was high on my list." . . . Center Dwight Howard did not participate in yesterday's practice because of a sternum injury that he said he suffered late last season with the Magic. Howard said he should be healthy when Team USA resumes practicing in Las Vegas July 21 . . . Before practice yesterday, coach Mike Krzyzewski played Marvin Gaye's rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" during the 1983 NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles. Half of USA's 12-member team wasn't alive then, but the players enjoyed it. "That motivates us," forward Carmelo Anthony said. "Showing the national anthem with Marvin Gaye singing, having it in our head and hoping and wishing we can hear that national anthem on the medal stand."