PORTLAND, Ore. -- Kobe Bryant emerged from the showers late Wednesday night and limped through the nearly empty visitors locker room at the Rose Garden, stopping briefly on his way to the training room to change so he could acknowledge Metta World Peace.
"You always backed me," Bryant said with intense appreciation.
Bryant was winding down from what can only be described as an epic performance by the 17-year veteran -- a season-high 47 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 blocks and 3 steals with only 1 turnover, a statistical line never before recorded in the league, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
And all those stats paled in comparison to Bryant's playing all 48 minutes, each and every second of the game, to help L.A. sweep a back-to-back for the first time in 16 tries this season and beat the Trail Blazers 113-106 in Portland, where the Lakers had lost 12 of their previous 14 games.
But World Peace and the rest of Bryant's teammates might not quite have his back the way he thinks they do.
After 79 games and with the Lakers on the edge of a playoff berth, holding a one-game lead over Utah for the No. 8 spot in the West with only three left to play, Bryant's teammates don't seem to be content to just feed the "All hail Kobe, the living legend" propaganda machine and ride his coattails into the playoffs.
If the season is worth saving at this point after all the trials and tribulations every player and coach in the locker room has gone through, it has to be saved as a team, the right way. If it's going to come down to Bryant playing hero ball from now until when the Lakers' season ends, there's a sense that Bryant's teammates would rather have an early summer if it means acting as the stage crew for Bryant's one-man show.
"It's bittersweet," Pau Gasol said when asked about Bryant's dominating performance against the Blazers, in which he played all 48 minutes in a non-overtime road game for the first time in his career. "Because, I think it's spectacular and it's very impressive and it's remarkable to be able to play 48 minutes and score 47 points. That's incredible. On the other hand, I'm a player that likes to see a little bit more ball movement and better balance. I've always been [like that]. That's just how I perceive this game.
"But again, he was incredible tonight. He scored a tremendous amount of points that I never scored in my life. So, like I said, it was very impressive and it's not something that you do every night, of course."
Gasol was quick to add context to his quotations, making it clear from his tone that this wasn't an issue of jealousy for the attention Bryant would receive for the feat, or a lack of appreciation for the talent Bryant has. And Gasol is certainly aware he might not be a Laker today and definitely would not be a Laker finally getting consistent post touches in Mike D'Antoni's system if it wasn't for Bryant supporting him.
But Gasol's stance is actually what Bryant asked for when the team had that air-it-out meeting in January that turned everything around for the Lakers. Bryant himself wanted a culture of confrontation.
"You can't just sweep things under the rug all the time," Bryant told reporters not long after that meeting. "They don't get better by doing it. You have to be able to confront things when you're able to challenge each other. At the same time, we understand we love each other and care for each other. That's crucial."
Hence, Gasol didn't rail on Bryant's going 14-for-27 on a night when he and Dwight Howard combined to go 20-for-26, but he also made his point quite clear.
"I just always like to see a little more ball movement because he attracts so much attention," Gasol said. "He attracts so much double-teams off pick-and-rolls, off isolations, and he's made great plays, great passes down the stretch. But he was extra aggressive tonight. It's interesting to see how [Tuesday] he was not aggressive for three quarters [and then scored 23 in the fourth]. Today, he was aggressive for four quarters. What's the reason behind it? I don't know. To me it's interesting as a player and as a teammate what goes through his mind."
It's the same reason D'Antoni heaped on praise for Bryant's teammates in the next breath whenever he was asked about No. 24's night.
"He's just a determined guy, and the rest of them are, too," D'Antoni said. "These guys have been playing must[-win] games now for about a month and every game is we have to have it, and they're doing a great job. With injuries and with a shortened rotation. ... Guys have sucked it up and played hard, so you got to give them credit."
It's walking a fine line, of course, to not give total credit to what Bryant has been doing. The Lakers need to win all these games. They have gone 5-1 in their past six with Bryant playing 45.7 minutes per game while averaging 28.0 points, 9.2 assists, 7.7 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 1.2 blocks. Tough to argue with that. However, if this playoff push is supposed to ready the team for a championship run, that's where Gasol and Howard feel it's within their right to speak up. This isn't a sustainable formula to take the title.
"We just got to play together; that's the biggest thing," Howard said. "Play together. I think we got to really play inside-out. That's what kills teams. It slows the game down. It gets me and Pau in a rhythm, and we're able to find guys on the perimeter also. It's tough to guard."
World Peace joined in the chorus the night before after the win against New Orleans, when he was yelling at his teammates from the bench in the fourth quarter to not just get swept up by Bryant's aura.
"At the end of the game, Pau was looking for Kobe, and I'm like, 'What the hell are you looking for Kobe for? Go to work. You don't have time for spectating. Everybody, what the f--- are you looking for Kobe for? Go to work. Everybody go to work,'" World Peace said Tuesday. "The five guys that are on that floor? We go to work. We're not watching. We don't take pictures. That's what you guys [in the media] are for, you take pictures. We're not taking pictures out there. We can't even bring a camera on the floor if we had a chance."
There's a reason Bryant is one of only five players ever to score 30,000 points or more. He has a tremendous individual will. Odds are he's not going to all of a sudden start giving. His teammates will have to take.
"You try to do everything," Bryant said of his historic stat line. "You don't look for excuses. You don't wait on anybody else to make rotations; you do it yourself, and by doing that, it sets an example for everybody else to do the same thing. It's not to sit and wait on everybody else to be aggressive or to make plays. Everybody just go out there and do it as yourself, and that's how you end up getting those good, collective wins."
Wednesday was a good win for the Lakers the Bryant way. But the only thing collective about it was an agreement that the Bryant way will not lead to the championship at the end of the season.