Go for it, Kobe

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Kobe Bryant needs 38 points Thursday for the scoring title. But should the Lakers let him off the pine?

At some point in his career, likely in the latter stages of the 16 NBA seasons he’s now amassed in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform, Kobe Bryant stopped caring about the persona we expect a star athlete to have.

Maybe the turn came in midair, on one of the many flights he took in and out of Colorado in 2003 and 2004 while being chastised by the entire country. Perhaps it was after the dust had settled on very public falling outs with the coach and star player from his first three title runs, in which he received the brunt of the blame. Or most likely, it was those status-fortifying fourth and fifth rings, the ones he won. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but somewhere lost amidst all the awards and accolades and success, Bryant has accepted and embraced that, despite his immense popularity, he may not be the most well-received player in the public eye. At the very least, he has just stopped caring.

And boy, is it refreshing.

He swears in interviews, so much so that he made it his New Year’s resolution to stop doing so (which didn’t last very long). After winning his fifth title, his immediate response to a question about what it meant to him was, “I just got one more than Shaq.” And he admitted that he went into last year’s All-Star game in L.A. looking to break the scoring record and did everything could to follow up on it (he didn’t, but he came close).

Bryant has always been brash; he took Brandy to his high school prom and wore sunglasses atop his shaved dome as he announced that he’d be skipping college and taking "his talents" to the NBA long before LeBron, as SI's Lee Jenkins reminded us this week. But with a decade-plus of exploits now under his belt and one of the league’s only no-trade clause at his disposal, Bryant has become downright brazen. In the same way your parents are willing to say and maybe wear things that embarrass the heck out of you without any remorse, Kobe’s comfort in his place in the league allows him to do what he wants, which is often to shoot from the hip.

That attitude has both cultivated and hindered his game, as carte blanche is also what affords him all those seemingly unquestioned shot opportunities. But in a league so bogged down by talk of a players’ image and what can and cannot be said, so much so that it may be altering the way some behave and make their decisions, Bryant remains one of the few willing to occasionally step outside of the public- and media-crafted conventions (regardless of whether or not it’s in an attempt to convey or bolster a carefully constructed image of superiority). His feats and maniacal quest for even greater feats may make him seem inhuman or robotic, but the openness with which he lusts after them is both rare and welcome in a sports culture that offers precious few moments of honesty.

The latest example came on the eve of the final night of the 2011-12 regular season, as Bryant and the Lakers head to Sacramento with the year-end scoring title on the line. The 33-year-old Bryant is averaging 27.86 points per game. Kevin Durant is averaging an NBA-best 28.03 points. In order to finish ahead of Durant, Bryant will have to score 38 points or more.

With little to gain against the Kings, the Lakers have said that they will likely sit most of their starters … except, perhaps, Bryant. Kobe will make his final decision at shootaround, but the presumption, based on his declaration last week that he’s “not on vacation” and that Kobe is, well, Kobe, is that he’ll play.

The decision may not be a wise one, especially for a player who just missed seven games because of a shin injury and averages over 38 minutes a game, at age 33. But unlike most players, Kobe has made it clear that statistics and his place in league history matters. A scoring title is a relatively minor accomplishment on a resume like the one Bryant has assembled, but years from now when we’re debating his place in league, such things will be brought up and factored in, and an almost-scoring title, even if it is by a fraction of a point, won’t even register. As frivolous as they may be, those conversations matter to many, including Kobe. And despite quotes to the contrary, it’s naive to think that many, many other players don’t agree.

Kevin Durant has brushed aside any talk about the significance of a third straight scoring belt at the tender age of 23, only feeding into the humble persona that defines both him and this new generation of NBA stars. But a noted fierce competitor, it’s a little hard to believe that Durant is completely disinterested, even if it is an individual award. With his emotions often hidden better than his many tattoos, it’s hard to tell, really.

Besides, while Durant may not have made any blatant attempt to pad his scoring numbers in his final regular-season appearance, a 106-101 loss to the Nuggets in which he had 32 points, the Thunder still had home-court advantage in a potential Miami-Oklahoma City NBA Finals to play for.

The Lakers, however, have very little to gain in their 66th and final game. Which may seem like an open invitation to shut it all down, but it’s also the perfect opportunity to give Kobe free rein for the night. The risk of injury is looming, but how is playing on this night any more dangerous than it was in the previous games this season, or the 1,000 or so before it?

Just let Kobe be Kobe.

He’s going to be either way.