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Kobe, the facilitator, works well for Lakers

LOS ANGELES -- The opponents notice. How could they not? How could anyone not?

"Kobe Bryant distributing and being a facilitator for them early, that helped them."

So said Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley after his team escaped Staples Center with a gritty win over the Los Angeles Lakers last week.

In that game, Bryant distributed early. He was the last Lakers starter to even take a shot, which didn't happen until late in the second quarter. And the Lakers held a halftime lead over the best team in the Western Conference -- and arguably the NBA.

Then later on, Bryant dominated the ball. So it was that a 36-year-old who has cited fatigue in second halves shot 1-of-5 from the field in the fourth quarter.

Fast forward to Sunday against the Toronto Raptors. Bryant distributed early. He had eight assists by intermission -- one more than his season-high. By that point, he had taken four shots, and the Lakers held a halftime lead over the best team in the East.

The Lakers won in overtime 129-122, though it's worth noting the Raptors were without their leading scorer, DeMar DeRozan (groin).

But it was still an impressive upset, and the key was Bryant and his distributing -- not just early, but throughout. He finished with 12 assists to go with 31 points and 11 rebounds. It was his 20th career triple-double and first since 2013.

Much of the talk afterward was about how the league-leader in field-goal attempts coming into the game (23.1) kept his teammates involved all night.

The Raptors sure noticed. They didn't expect it, either.

"He got a lot of people going and got them in a rhythm different from the way they've been playing," Toronto coach Dwane Casey said.

It's not as though Bryant's sharing the ball will lead to Lakers wins, but it no doubt makes them more competitive. The same can't be said of those games when he essentially eschews his teammates, goes solo and takes a ton of shots.

That's what opponents want him to do, after all.

"If Kobe is going to get his points, make him take a lot of shots," Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team beat the Lakers earlier this year. "That's what happens."

Sunday was different.

"Kobe's playmaking gave us a chance," said Lakers forward Carlos Boozer, who scored 18 points and grabbed 9 rebounds. "They put two people on him, and it gave us a chance to eat early. We were aggressive with the ball, and it kept going throughout the game."

Late in the game, Bryant turned it on, as usual. After attempting 12 shots through the first three quarters, he attempted that many in the fourth and overtime.

Lakers coach Byron Scott made the point that in the first half, Bryant looked to conserve his energy by getting teammates involved, then at the end, Bryant had enough left in the tank to attack.

The approach seemed to work, though the Lakers hardly rode Bryant alone at the very end. Bryant scored 6 points in overtime, just as Lakers guard Jeremy Lin did, and Wesley Johnson scored 7 of his 13 points in the extra session.

In short, it was a team effort, and Johnson said Bryant's role as a facilitator was the difference.

"Yeah, he draws a lot of attention, and it just frees up a lot of stuff for everybody," Johnson said.

Said Lin: "It was good. [Bryant] was looking to make plays for everybody, and he was looking to move the ball and then be aggressive when he needed to be."

Bryant said he was just trying to "make the right play."

"The difference is," he added, "when they make them, I don't have to force the offense. When you miss them, and you go down 12, 15 points, then I've got to try and force the issue a little bit and keep us in the ball game.

"But when they hit shots like that, it makes my job easier."

The cold truth is even if Bryant puts his teammates in position to score, it's on them to do so, and they haven't always done so this season. Many wide-open looks were not converted, so it's not surprising if Bryant decides to do it on his own.

Yet at his age, with the minutes load he's handling now, it's unreasonable for Bryant or anyone else to expect he can carry the team on his own. He knows that, and Sunday's virtuoso performance appeared to be an acknowledgment of that.

Whether Bryant was trying to conserve his energy or get his teammates more involved, the Lakers were, as Casey said, in a totally different rhythm. They had seven players score in double figures, including all five starters.

"They made shots," Bryant said of his teammates. "When you do that, you become very difficult to guard, and it enables you to kind of pick the opposition apart."

The end result: a win.