Lakers’ Bryant pushing toward title
AP Sports Writer
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) – Behind Kobe Bryant’s stone-faced mask and the icy grimace he’s wearing in these finals, his eyes are laser locked on one target: His fourth NBA title.
His vision is so narrow, so sharp that he can’t think about anything but a shiny championship trophy now close enough to touch.
To him, these two weeks are all that matters.
After that, it’s anyone’s guess.
As he and the Los Angeles Lakers practiced in advance of playing the Orlando Magic in Sunday’s Game 2, Bryant, as few as three games from wrapping up his 13th season as a pro, said he has not given any thought about giving up what has been the driving force in his life.
“I don’t know,” he said when asked how much longer he’ll play. “I just love the game so much still. “I just feel like there’s still so much out there for me to improve on and work on. My body feels great. God willing, I stay healthy, I’ll just keep going.”
Bryant, who will turn 31 in August, has an upcoming decision to make on his future. While he’s under contact to make $23 million next season, he has an early termination option, which he can exercise if he so chooses this summer. The idea of a Bryant-less Lakers may be farfetched, but nothing can be assumed.
Michael Jordan was just 30 the first time he quit, stepping away to chase his dream of playing baseball.
Could Bryant, who scored 40 points in Game 1 and has been the closest thing to M.J. the league has seen, follow him and do something else?
His coach doesn’t think so.
“Kobe is going to play it out for as long as he can,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “He’s just a player that is going to find a way regardless. When his skill level deteriorates, he’s going to find a level to play at that his athleticism is going to allow. I can see him playing to 36, 37.”
There are no apparent signs that Bryant’s wondrous skills are receding. In fact, and this is a scary thought for every other team in the league, Bryant may be just hitting his prime. He has become a smarter, more efficient player. He takes care of his body. His work ethic is unsurpassed. He is driven like never before.
Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy laughed when he was asked if he has seen any flaws or erosion in Bryant’s magnificence.
“Yeah, I thought he dropped off quite a bit the other night,” he quipped.
Van Gundy, who has spent the past two days devising a better scheme to slow L.A.’s No. 24, expects Bryant’s game to evolve in the years ahead. Bryant won’t be able to slash to the basket as often, but he’ll figure out new ways of destroying defenses – just like Mike.
“That’s what happened to Jordan,” Van Gundy said. “So now even though at the end of his career he might have lost a half step or a quarter step, they get to the basket when they want to because you’ve got to take away that jump shot, and they just get smarter and smarter.
“Those guys get better and better.”
Jackson has seen it firsthand. He won six titles with Jordan in Chicago, and the gray-haired Zen Master is seeking his fourth with Bryant. As long as Bryant stays healthy, Jackson expects him to follow the same path toward retirement as Jordan did.
“All players that remain physically competent, as they get old, they just get better,” Jackson said. “Their reactive ability is probably most noted on the defensive end. That’s usually where they get hurt the most. But you saw guys like (Jerry) Stackhouse and Jordan playing past 35 with great ability.
“There’s no reason why Kobe won’t.”
With the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks opening their season at Staples Center, both teams had to work out at the Lakers’ training facility on Saturday.
As the Magic shot around on L.A.’s practice floor, they could look up and see eight of the 14 Larry O’Brien Trophies won by the Lakers lined up side by side behind a second-floor window overlooking the court. It’s an imposing sight for a franchise which has been to the finals just twice, has yet to win a game in either visit and got blown out in Game 1.
Van Gundy has reminded his players that they can get back in the series. Orlando shot just 30 percent from the field and center Dwight Howard made only one field goal.
The Magic have spent the entire season in comeback mode. It’s time to rally again.
“We’ve been through it,” said Van Gundy, who plans to keep his rotations intact for Game 2. “As the playoffs have gone on, I’m given them history lessons of just about anything that can happen in the playoffs, people being blown out at times. All of us were upset with our performances the other night; I wasn’t happy with mine, I don’t think they were happy with theirs. We’re anxious to get back at it.”
So is Bryant.
He is consumed with winning it all, and although his body language says otherwise, Bryant insists he’s having fun in his sixth finals.
“Just because you’re focused on something doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy something,” he said. “That’s part of the fun is just figuring out how to focus and how to get ready. You can still do your job and have a good time.”
At various times, Bryant has been called aloof, selfish, moody, arrogant. Those he allows to get close to him, say he’s different.
Jackson was asked the biggest misconception about Bryant.
“That he’s a nice guy,” Jackson said. “He’s a killer. He’s a gun slinger, and he’s a guy that’s going to take the weak and have no mercy on them.”
Bryant, whose obligatory news conferences have been painful because of his uptight demeanor and one-word responses, was told of his coach’s portrait of him.
“He lied,” Bryant said, smiling.