Kobe flips the script on his farewell season

DENVER -- With every brick, with every air ball, with every abysmal shooting performance that piled up to open his 20th NBA season, Kobe Bryant tried to remind himself it was all part of the process, that in time his rhythm would return and his legs would do the same. Hopefully.

"The hardest thing [was] to stay with it, seriously," the Los Angeles Lakers star said Tuesday. "There's been games where I was just kind of like, 'What the hell?'

"Because I knew how hard I worked. I knew how many shots I took. There was just nothing I could do. What I had to do was just stay with it. Just stay with it. Just stay with it. And just trust that, eventually, it would catch up."

It eventually did catch up, and now, believe it or not, the 37-year-old Bryant has completely flipped the script on what he has said is now his final season, the latest example coming in a 111-107 victory over the Denver Nuggets, when he tied his season-high with 31 points on 10-of-22 shooting in 32 minutes.

In his first 17 games, Bryant averaged 15.9 points on 29.6 percent shooting.

In his past seven games, Bryant is averaging 20.6 points on 48.2 percent shooting.

"I just feel good. My legs feel fine. I feel like me," Bryant said. "I feel good. I feel like I can control the game. I feel like I can read everything. I can get to the spots I want to get to -- not as quickly as I want to get to them. [But] I can get to them."

These are the kind of performances that represented the light at the end of the tunnel Bryant surely hoped for during his early struggles.

"Yeah, man," he said. "But it was a little discouraging. Like I said, I really worked hard. So to start the season that way, it just felt like there was nothing [I could do]. Just had to stay with it."

But Tuesday's performance was more special than any that preceded it during what has been a renaissance run because Bryant proved he can still -- for one night at least -- be a two-way player, dominating on offense and defense.

Though he poured in 31 points to carry the Lakers to their fifth win of the season, Bryant was just as impressive against Denver reserve guard Will Barton, who torched the Lakers for 18 points in the first quarter and 23 in the first half.

Then came an adjustment.

"[I] decided to ask Kobe if he wanted to guard him," Lakers coach Byron Scott said.

Bryant's response: "I got him."

Barton scored two points from then on.

"I can still play a little bit," Bryant said with a smirk.

What did he relish more, his impact on offense or defense?

"Both. Because it's a great test for me tonight to be able to see if I could still play both ends of the floor," Bryant said. "I felt like I could do one. I didn't know if I could do both. It felt good to be able to do that."

It wasn't clear how Bryant would play against the Nuggets after sitting out Saturday's 40-point blowout loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder because of a sore right shoulder.

To rehab that shoulder, Bryant said he spent the past few days doing ... nothing.

"I didn't do anything," he said. "I just rested completely. My shoulder was a little too sore to be moving around, things like that. I just rested completely."

Oh, he said he did go see the new "Star Wars" film. His review: "Amazing."

But with 10:34 in the first quarter, Bryant lined up a 13-foot jumper and the ball swooshed through. He fired more shots around that range early, relying more on his legs, if only to help loosen up his shoulder. It worked. His jumper remained true deep into the second half, including when he scored 11 points in the fourth quarter.

Bryant iced the game with a dagger turnaround jumper from 16 feet with 32.2 seconds left. That shot came after he waved his teammates off, clearing the floor out so he could take his man one-on-one, as he has done for, well, decades.

"He was making shots. He was making plays. So we just kept going to him," Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson said. "He did what he did. Mamba."

Said Scott: "I can't explain it. I don't even try. Seriously. Just what he did on both ends of the floor was amazing."

All the while, fans chanted "Ko-be! Ko-be!" as yet another road arena felt more like Staples Center, with the chants continuing for minutes even after the game ended.

"I just knew it was a matter of time before he would start getting his legs and his timing, the rust would be knocked off and he would start playing the way I know he's capable of playing." Byron Scott

"There was a lot of energy in the place," Bryant said. "On a personal note, it felt great to have that appreciation."

Scott said he had no doubt his former teammate would return to form.

"I've got so much confidence in him," Scott said. "I just knew it was a matter of time before he would start getting his legs and his timing, the rust would be knocked off and he would start playing the way I know he's capable of playing."

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Tuesday marked the first time Bryant was the outright high scorer in the NBA since Nov. 16, 2014, when he scored 44 points against the Warriors.

Bryant also had five assists, three rebounds, a block and a steal.

"He just had a hand in everything that we were doing," Scott said.

As well as Bryant has been playing lately, he's being asked more and more if he's certain he wants to retire at the end of this season.

Perhaps he's having some second thoughts?

"Zero," he said with a laugh. "Not even an inkling."

More and more, Lakers fans might hope Bryant changes his mind, which speaks volumes about what has become a truly remarkable turnaround.