Nearly eight months after tearing his Achilles tendon, Kobe Bryant will make his return against the Toronto Raptors on Sunday.
Replacing his 27.3 points per game from last year hasn’t been an issue thus far through 19 games (10-9 record), as nine different players average at least eight points. The key to the team’s success with Bryant absent from the lineup, according to Jodie Meeks, was their unselfishness.
“Guys sharing the ball,” he said. “We knew we had to do it by committee. We have to play that way the whole season and I think we’ll be fine.”
With numerous players stepping up, the Lakers have won six of their last eight games, including three straight on the road after Friday’s win at Sacramento. What will be the biggest challenge in incorporating Bryant back into the mix?
“Just to integrate him,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He’s a big piece. You throw that boulder in the water and there will be some serious ripples. Adding a big piece like this, everybody has to adjust a little bit.”
The coaching staff, however, maintained the offense won’t change one bit when Bryant returns.
“He can get 40 in any offense so it doesn’t matter,” D’Antoni said. “Our offense is designed to help the other guys get their shots and keep it going. We’ll use the same thing. There might be points of emphasis in the schemes we have with Kobe, and it’ll be a little different, but it’s still the same schemes.”
What might change is how Bryant chooses to approach the game, whether that be scoring or facilitating. D’Antoni believes he’ll opt for the latter, since he’ll likely have the ball in his hands more often and try to find a comfort level on the court. With Steve Nash doubtful and Jordan Farmar ruled out of Sunday’s game, some of the playmaking duties will fall on Bryant’s shoulders.
“I think that’s most of what he’ll do to start with to try and get in a rhythm,” D’Antoni said. “He was doing that last year. The last 40 games that’s what he did mostly. Everybody should be a benefactor of it.”
D’Antoni hinted that Meeks will likely move to the bench, with Bryant sliding into the starting unit alongside Steve Blake, Wesley Johnson, Pau Gasol and Robert Sacre, who made his first start of the season at Sacramento. The coaching staff has been pleased with Sacre’s development thus far on both sides of the ball, citing his energy and activity, particularly on the defensive end.
“He’s a good fit for Pau (Gasol) because he gives a physical presence under there,” D’Antoni said. “He can take the tough guy defensively. He really runs the floor well. He understands the offense and how he wants to do it. He’s a great dive guy so it opens up a lot of shooters … and he finishes well now. He’s a better offensive player than people give him credit for. Defensively, he’s good, and that’s what we need.”
D’Antoni acknowledged there haven’t been any tough moments through this whole process in trying to integrate Bryant back into the fold. That is, in large part, due to the players, he said.
“They have a great spirit among themselves, whether they play five minutes or 20 minutes, they are all in,” D’Antoni said. “When that happens, there are really no tough moments. We’re just trying to win and get better, and we’re doing that.”