This is personal.
It has to be. Even though the number of people Kobe Bryant would love to shut up this season (including every voting member of the ESPN.com NBA rankings panel) would probably exceed the total number of Facebook users, I’m convinced the 48 points Kobe dropped Tuesday night were directed at one person in particular: Steve Nash.
Kobe keeps saying how much he hates the Phoenix Suns.
But there’s almost nothing left from the Suns teams that knocked the Lakers out of the first round of the playoffs in 2006 and 2007. The coach is gone, the general manager is gone, every other player is gone ... there’s even a different guy doing tricks in the gorilla suit. The only one who remains is Steve Nash. The same Steve Nash who won the Most Valuable Player award over Bryant in 2005 and 2006.
So really, whom else is Kobe supposed to hate? Channing Frye? Hakim Warrick? He sure doesn’t hate Shannon Brown, his former teammate whom he embraced in a tight hug right after the buzzer sounded.
It’s gotta be Nash.
Those 48 points Kobe scored during the Lakers’ 99-83 victory were his most scored since March 22, 2011 -- against the Phoenix Suns. *And as Dave McMenamin pointed out, the last time Kobe scored more than 48 was when he put up 49 on March 1, 2009 -- against the Phoenix Suns. This can’t be a coincidence. Kobe is too cold and calculating for this to be coincidence.
“I don’t like them,” Bryant said of the Suns. “Plain and simple, I do not like them. They used to whip us pretty good and used to let us know about it, and I. Will. Not. Forget. That.”
Even though most of the guys from that team are gone?
“I. Don’t. Care,” Bryant said. “I won’t let it go.”
He still remembers those people who doubted him when he was drafted in 1996, so he sure is going to remember the guy who took his trophies and sent him home twice.
When Bryant got the chance to go one-on-one with Nash in the first half Tuesday night, he even changed his signature sound. Normally Bryant calls for the ball by using his tongue to push staccato bursts of air through his teeth. It sounds kind of like the Smoke Monster on “Lost.” As soon as Nash switched onto Bryant, however, Kobe made sure he wouldn’t miss out on the opportunity. He posted up Nash on the right block and let loose a holler that could be heard throughout Staples Center.
“Whooo!” he yelled. “Whoo!”
The ball found its way to him, and he scored.
Later, Nash was guarding Bryant again, trying to deny him from the front. But the entry pass sailed over Nash’s head to Bryant, who turned around and had an easy, open jumper.
That was it for Nash’s defensive duties on Kobe. The task fell to Grant Hill for much of the night.
“Just make him work,” Hill said of his thankless task. “He hit some tough shots. He missed some shots at times. I thought in the third quarter I did a decent job ... then he came out in the fourth and really did a good job of closing it."
Bryant made six of his seven shots in the fourth quarter. (LeBron James, meanwhile, didn’t take a shot in the fourth quarter and was 1-for-3 in overtime of the Heat’s loss at Golden State, if you feel like having that discussion.)
Over the past five games, Bryant has made 69 of 134 shots (51 percent). So while this might not be as spectacular as, say, his run of four consecutive 50-point games in 2006-07, the fact that he can be so accurate while playing with a torn ligament in his right wrist makes this as impressive a stretch as I’ve seen him play.
“He’s doing it in a pretty efficient manner,” Derek Fisher said. “That’s what really stands out about what he’s doing now. He’s always going to be aggressive and assertive to score, but he’s picking his spots and he’s doing it in a very efficient manner. That ranks it right up there with the best of them because it doesn’t look like he’s trying to do it. He’s just doing it within the flow of the game. That’s been very effective for him and us.”
Fourteen of Bryant's 18 baskets Tuesday night came from below the foul line. Only five of his 13 misses were from that range.
“Just making adjustments,” Bryant said. “You have to figure out a way to get it done. There’s no time to make excuses.”
I still don’t think it’s a good long-term indicator for the Lakers if they need Bryant to be so great in order to beat the likes of Phoenix and Golden State at home. But it’s not as detrimental if he’s shooting so effectively, instead of taking wild shots at the expense of getting the ball to the big men. That was the issue I’ve had with him before: not playing the percentages. On Tuesday night, he made 58 percent of his 31 shots. Maybe he should have shot even more.
There’s no way he can shoot 58 percent every game ... if only because there’s no way he can play every game against Steve Nash.