LOS ANGELES -- OK, so Kobe looked a little more like Kobe. The thing is, the Lakers look nothing like the Lakers -- whatever that is supposed to be these days.
Kobe Bryant scored 20 points Tuesday night, more than double the output in his season debut Sunday. He backed defenders down, worked them from side to side, even drove by one for a dunk. It couldn’t prevent the Lakers from losing to the Phoenix Suns, couldn’t keep them from dropping two games in as many tries since Kobe returned from that torn Achilles tendon, couldn’t stop from losing their way like a horse that wandered off the ranch.
The Lakers had found something that worked well enough to win six of their previous eight games. They spread the floor and fired in 3-pointers. They had roles and rotations.
As of Sunday, they had to change.
Kobe Bryant’s presence is too large for him to quietly slip in the room and take a seat in the back row. Coach Mike D’Antoni is trying to figure out which lineups work best around Kobe. In an extreme example of the shuffling, Robert Sacre went from starting in Sacramento on Friday to sitting with a DNP-Coach’s Decision by his name in the box score Tuesday. D’Antoni is throwing combinations that have never played together in NBA games before, and that newness is most evident on defense. The Lakers were particularly susceptible to breakdowns on the back end of the defense Tuesday night. That’s how the Suns could manage 56 points in the paint, and why the Suns won the game 114-108.
“It’s trying to figure out the best combination and trying to get through the period where guys are adjusting to each other,” D’Antoni said.
The players are adjusting to Bryant while Bryant adjusts to them -- and himself -- as he figures out how to manage his slower, ground-based attack. Two games in, he’s decided he wants to leave his ballhandling, initiating days in the past and operate closer to the basket. Oh, and set screens. Lots of them. If the detailed statistical data were available for all 1,241 of his NBA games, I’m sure this would be the highest number of screens he’d ever set.
“It’s part of the evolution,” Bryant said. “It’s figuring out what we have. How to adjust around that.”
But as the Laker offense becomes more concentrated in one region, it makes it easier for the opposing defense to cover them with less ground. It also brings another Laker below the free throw line, which makes it tougher for them to get back in transition defense.
Another issue for D’Antoni is that if he pairs the two Lakers who are most familiar with each other, Bryant and Pau Gasol, it makes the unit on the floor slower.
But the Lakers were never going to be about defense, regardless of who played. They’re not built that way, and D’Antoni doesn’t emphasize it. This week, though, there was a shift in the offense.
The Lakers had shot better than 40 percent from 3-point range this season, the No. 3 long-range accuracy in the league. They made 32 percent on Sunday and 26 percent Tuesday.
Jodie Meeks had made the most 3s on the team, but “tonight they ran me off,” he said.
He still made one of the most successful adjustments to playing with Bryant, actually taking over Bryant’s old role of attacking the basket. Before Tuesday, half of Meeks’ baskets had been 3-pointers, but against the Suns four of his five field goals came from inside the arc.
“I didn’t want to force up a lot of [3s],” Meeks said. “I saw the lane open and took it.”
The Suns, meanwhile, didn’t adjust. They’ve found something that works for them. It’s remarkable that it’s shaped up so early given that there’s a new coach with a team that traded its second through fifth top scorers from a year ago.
But the Suns let the 3-pointers fly, they convert fast-break opportunities and, most impressively, they get after the ball. That last attribute showed up with a 43-33 rebounding advantage Tuesday night.
It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had the Lakers kept it a little closer. The Suns were 1-4 in games decided by three points or fewer, and maybe Kobe could have prevailed in a possession-by-possession showdown. But the Suns didn’t let it happen.
The Morris twins combined for 18 points, five rebounds and three assists in the fourth quarter, and the Suns kept the Lakers at bay.
“That’s how we do!” Marcus Morris yelled as he ran back into the Suns’ locker room at Staples Center.
The Suns actually have a “how we do.” The Lakers don’t. At least not yet.