LOS ANGELES -- It was a night Mike D’Antoni was looking forward to and dreading all at the same time.
He knew at some point that Kobe Bryant would return from the ruptured Achilles tendon. He also knew at some point that return would complicate whatever chemistry and consistency his team had built up in the early weeks of the season.
Sunday night was the beginning of the Lakers learning how to play with Bryant again and Bryant learning how to play with them again.
If Sunday’s 106-94 loss to the Toronto Raptors is any indication, the learning curve will be steep early on.
“Having Kobe back, we’re going to have to find out different solutions and work some things out,” D’Antoni said. “There’s always that possibility that the flow is disrupted and you don’t play well and we obviously didn’t play well. It’s a work in progress and we have to get going.”
There’s no simple solution to the work the Lakers have ahead of them. The group of players that currently surrounds Bryant went through training camp together, played preseason together and played the first 19 games of the regular season together before Bryant made his debut on Sunday.
The question for the Lakers is how long will the adjustment period last, and will the bumps accumulated during that time prevent the Lakers from making the playoffs for only the third time since 1976.
“We have to get through this,” D’Antoni said. “Maybe you lose the skirmish anyway but the battle is bigger. Obviously we’re going to ride Kobe so you might as well get it over with. One game is not going to kill us but we have to get him back as soon as we can.”
There’s no question Bryant struggled in his first game back in eight months. He finished with nine points, eight rebounds, four assists and eight turnovers in 28 minutes. Bryant was struggling so much that D’Antoni wasn’t sure whether to bring him back in the fourth quarter. When asked if he considered not having Bryant finish the game, D’Antoni sighed and smiled, “I wanted to live a little bit.”
Bryant will be the first to admit he’s nowhere near where he wants to be, needs to be and ultimately believes he will be, but until that time comes, the success of the Lakers will largely depend on how quickly he adjusts to his teammates and how much they can help him make that adjustment.
“He is human,” D’Antoni said. “I think we have to understand it’s going take a little while. It’s going to be painful at first but the biggest thing is getting everybody else to step up and take care of him and we did not do that tonight.”
While adjusting is a two-way street, Bryant said the onus is on him to work his way back into the team as smoothly as possible.
“It’s more me adjusting because I just got to get used to the timing of the game and the speed of the game and where those lanes are and how quickly they close down and getting them the ball at the right time,” Bryant said. “We’re just out of sync. I’m throwing the ball to a certain spot and they’re [not there] so it’s getting used to that rhythm. The adjustment is really for me to deliver the ball in areas where they can be effective.
“My rhythm is completely out of sync in terms of being able to read passing lanes and judge the timing of players in between those lanes and so forth.”
Most of the focus will be on Bryant but how his teammates adjust to playing with him is just as important as how he adjusts to playing with them. Players like Nick Young, Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson, who have never played with Bryant can’t always defer to him and risk becoming spectators on the court. It was an issue D’Antoni stressed to his young players before the game.
“The biggest thing we have to guard against is standing around and watching him play,” D’Antoni said. “It’s like sometimes when you go to an all-star game and you’re with someone haven’t played with and you sit there and watch them and you don’t really get it into. We can’t afford to have Nick Young take a step backwards and Wesley Johnson. They’ve got to take a step forward and bring their egos to the game. They’re good players and they can’t take a back seat to anybody.”
But everyone takes a back seat to Bryant, of course. It’s hard not to think so when Bryant received a separate pregame introduction, complete with special lighting and Star Wars music, before the game. Bryant is the face of the Lakers and it’s going to be hard for some of the young first-year Lakers players not to be a little awe-struck playing alongside him.
“Sometimes I don’t believe I’m on the court with Kobe,” Young said. “He has the ball so much and he demands the ball so much as Kobe Bryant and sometimes you can catch yourself watching him on the floor. We just got to be out there and go with him. Sometimes we’ll bring it up and sometimes he’ll bring it up, we can’t just defer to him every time.”
That was easier said than done for Young, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, and has been watching Bryant since he made his NBA debut when Young was 11 years old.
“It’s my first time out there with him so I deferred to him a lot,” Young said. “I looked for him a lot because he’s out there on the court and that’s what the fans wanted. The whole thing was about Kobe tonight so I got caught up in the moment.”
It may have been about Bryant on Sunday but it can’t always be about him moving forward if the Lakers are going to do anything more significant this season than selling out arenas and pushing new merchandise.
“It’s Kobe Bryant so we’re trying to find our way,” Henry said. “We don’t have it all down yet and guys were just trying to play off Kobe and see what we got and it got a little stagnant but we can fix it.”
How long it takes the Lakers to fix it and adjust to life with Bryant will go a long way in how good the Lakers can be this season. Bryant, who has grown impatient after having not played for the past eight months is hoping the Lakers can figure it out before their next home game.
“The magic is being able to adjust to what’s going on, on the fly,” Bryant said. “That requires rhythm and that requires being on the same page with your guys in terms of pinpointing passes and things of that nature. It will take some time. Hopefully sooner rather than later . . . like Tuesday.”