Kobe getting closer as Lakers win

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Kobe Bryant might not be all the way back yet, but he's still Kobe Bryant.

For a minute there, it looked as if he might play this comeback cautiously. Remember last week when he was asked if he was fine keeping his minutes in the mid-20s for a little while? He laughed and said, "Hell yeah." Remember when he said over the summer the other young guys would have to carry the Los Angeles Lakers offense for a while as he worked back into form?

He does, too. And he meant it all at the time.

But come on, we all knew once he got back onto the court, started to feel his legs back under him a little and the competitive juices started flowing, you were going to have to put quote marks around the phrase, "holding him back."

Tuesday night in Memphis was about the furthest Bryant has pushed himself since returning to the court six games ago, and if it hadn't been for a weird knee tweak in the third quarter, he would've pushed it even more.

"You've got to crank it up at some point," Bryant said after scoring 21 points in a season-high 33 minutes in the Lakers' 96-92 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. "I have to push it a little bit. This was a big game in terms of being able to tell what my body can do. It's a tough schedule, in terms of the amount of games. Tonight, I really wanted to challenge myself to see what I could do physically."

What he didn't say was that he had to spend all day stretching, icing and doing therapy to shake off the soreness that had built up in his body after logging heavy minutes during this trip.

If it were training camp, this was the kind of game he would've simply skipped to rest and recover, but with the Lakers down to zero healthy point guards -- in danger of slipping further below .500 and behind the pack of teams clustered around it in the Western Conference -- this was the time to push, not pull back.

"It's tough, but I did everything possible to get ready for the game," Bryant said. "As a result, when the game started, I felt pretty good."

He also tried something different during the game that may become a more permanent practice because of how well it worked.

After stiffening up during an extended first-half break in Atlanta the night before, Bryant went to the locker room to do exercises that would keep him warm during his break Tuesday night.

"I'm trying to figure out what I can do to keep it as loose as possible throughout the course of a game," he said. "We tried something different tonight, and it felt pretty good."

That pretty much has been Bryant's M.O. since returning six games ago: test it, push it, see how it reacts, push it a little further the next time, adjust if necessary.

The only questions were when he was going to go full throttle again and if he'd have any fear of doing so. That day isn't here just yet, but it's not that far away anymore.

"I know I'm back when those pull-up jumpers start going, especially against a defender like Tony Allen, who was breathing all over me and is very physical," Bryant said. "I felt very comfortable to elevate and shoot through contact. That's when I know I'm starting to feel it."

Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni has taken a hands-off approach to Bryant and his return. Bryant and trainer Gary Vitti manage the situation. D'Antoni just reacts to what they decide to do.

Even he can see that Bryant is getting close to shedding the last shackles of restraint.

"I still think he's holding it back, because I can see his eyes looking at me sometimes," D'Antoni said when asked about Bryant logging 32 and 33 minutes on back-to-back nights.

That look, of course, is the one Bryant used to give D'Antoni last season when he averaged 38.6 minutes. He didn't just want back in the game, he was going back in the game.

That D'Antoni is starting to see it again tells you everything.

He may not look entirely like Kobe Bryant again. His legs are still strengthening. He's not playing above the rim just yet. The pull-up jumper is still coming.

But that fire is starting to burn again. There won't be much "holding him back" for much longer.