HOUSTON -- There has been a shift, a very noticeable one, involving Kobe Bryant. Earlier this season, the 37-year-old Los Angeles Lakers star was firing contested jumpers at a staggering rate, and he was missing at a staggering rate, too.
It seemed as if Bryant was hell-bent on shooting himself out of a shooting slump, but it wasn’t working. Father Time was winning, Bryant was losing, and far too many of his contested jumpers kept hitting nothing but air.
Earlier this week, in fact, Bryant, who’s retiring at the end of this season, his 20th in the NBA, was shooting a career-worst 29.6 percent from the field, which put him on pace to become the first player in the shot-clock era to shoot less than 30 percent from the field while taking 15 shots per game. Clearly, something needed to change.
And something did.
In Monday’s loss to Toronto, Bryant scored 21 points on 8-of-16 shooting, his first game of 50 percent shooting this season. In Wednesday’s loss at Minnesota, Bryant scored 11 and sat out the fourth quarter, deferring to the Lakers’ promising young players. In Friday’s loss at San Antonio, Bryant scored 12 points and again played limited minutes. Similar story in Saturday’s 126-97 loss to the Houston Rockets.
In those four games, Bryant averaged 14.3 shots versus the 17.9 he attempted before then. But it’s more than just embracing a less-is-more approach; it’s about taking better shots, and he is doing that while avoiding the awful ones.
In Saturday’s defeat at Toyota Center, Bryant finished with 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting in 31 minutes. It was his first game shooting at better than 50 percent this season, and it was just another example of how the Lakers star is picking his spots more carefully.
“He’s taking some great shots,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said. “He’s getting some more open shots as well.”
Bryant was so picky with which shots he’d take, in fact, that he tallied three assists before even taking one.
“The beginning of the game, he was definitely in that facilitating mode and trying to get the ball moving and get the offense going and get guys shots,” Scott said. “Even when he took his first two or three shots, they were all under control and they were all great shots. I thought that continued for the rest of the night.”
It’s a stark contrast from the player that Bryant was earlier this season, and it seems to be much more sustainable as he forges ahead the rest of this season. But when asked what is different for him, Bryant pointed to his health.
“I feel pretty good. I feel like my legs are finally starting to catch up,” he said. “Better late than never. It’s like the rhythm is starting to come back a little bit. My legs are moving pretty well. I felt good.”
Bryant said he has continued to run and lift and “just hope for the best.” He said his regimen throughout the team’s eight-games-in-12-days road trip, which concluded Saturday, evolved so that he spent more time on his treadmill to keep his legs fresh.
“Those were things I didn’t have to do in the past, but I surely have to do now,” he said.
But the result, from a health perspective, seems to be working.
“My legs feel a lot better. They don’t get tired on me,” Bryant said. “We’ve started to figure out how to stay loose a little bit more. Timing feels a lot better. I just had to deal with that. Aside from the age and the injuries and all that stuff, I also really haven’t played in the last three years. It’s kind of getting acclimated to that again, rhythm and timing, aside from being on top of all those other things.”
He said he’s also at peace sitting out of the fourth quarter, even when he has been playing well, as was the case Saturday.
“I’m not worried about that,” Bryant said. “I’ve had plenty of those games. What does it do for me now?”
Overall health and minutes play a role. How Bryant plays is also a factor. Add it all up, and Bryant is shooting 47.4 percent from the floor in his past four games. More than that, he is giving fans some vintage highlights. Many games remain, but the hope here is that Bryant doesn’t stray from this approach, that less-is more-becomes the norm from here on out until the very end.