It was the first question you asked when you saw Kobe Bryant finished with 14 assists against the Utah Jazz Friday night. You repeated it when he had another 14 assists against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday. Will he keep passing this much?
It feels like a stretch, like when we were asked to buy the quirky character actor Steve Buschemi as the leading man/gangster on “Boardwalk Empire.” Passing isn't Kobe's thing. Scoring is. You know how LeBron James scored his 20,000th point a year younger than Kobe did? Well, LeBron was four years younger than Bryant when he reached his 5,000th assist. If we can borrow the promotional hashtag Bryant uses on Twitter, you can #countonkobe to shoot.
But I believe Kobe will stay in this pass-oriented mode the rest of the way because traditionally he has pushed the scoring envelope in the regular season, then played more team-oriented ball in the playoffs…and with the Lakers margin for error eliminated by losing 25 of their first 42 games, every game is like a playoff game from here on out. That’s why he’ll stick with what’s working.
Over the course of Bryant’s career, the statistical differences between Kobe in the regular season and the playoffs are negligible. There’s a 0.1 difference in the scoring average. Assists are the same. Usage rate drops a percent in the postseason. It’s the anecdotal evidence that changes dramatically. In the playoffs, Bryant’s shot selection improves. You don’t hear those passive-aggressive complaints about the ball not moving from his teammates. The ultimate confirmation comes from the Larry O’Brien trophy. No one can win five championships by playing selfishly in the postseason.
Howard Beck, the New York Times writer who used to cover the Lakers for the Los Angeles Daily News, first came up with the notion of the different mode for Kobe in the playoffs, and on the last day of the regular season in 2004 Beck elicited this description from Phil Jackson:
"Sometimes [Bryant] needs to overwhelm the rest of the ballclub's necessity. ... As we get into the playoffs, that'll dissipate, because he knows that he's got to put his ego aside and conform to what we have to do if we're going to go anywhere in the playoffs. Any player that takes it on himself to do that [play for himself] knows that he's going against the basic principles of basketball. That's a selfish approach to the game. You know when you're breaking down the team or you're breaking down and doing things individualistic, you're going to have, you know, some unhappy teammates ... and he knows these things ... intuitively, I have to trust the fact that he's going to come back to that spot and know that the timing's right. The season's over, things have been accomplished, records have been stuck in the books, statistics are all jelled in, now let's go ahead and play basketball as we're supposed to play it."
It’s why Bryant, who has gone for 50 points in one out of every 50 games on average in the regular season, has done so only once in 220 playoff games. And it’s why he has had more assists than field goal attempts in the past two games.
From the first day of training camp, Bryant theorized that this sudden collection of superstars with Steve Nash and Dwight Howard could work together because each player did different things, so they wouldn’t step on each other’s toes. It turns out the key wasn’t doing different things, it’s about doing things differently, stepping out of comfort zones, adapting to suit this team’s needs.
"It’s trying to evolve and figure out what we need as a ballclub and taking a lot of pressure off Steve to have to be the playmaker all the time," Bryant said. "Instead of me being a finisher, just really facilitating."
It’s fascinating to hear Bryant and Nash, who both came into the league in 1996, talking about altering their approach after all of these years and accomplishments. And yes, it does speak to the desperate place the Lakers have reached.
"It is a big difference for me and it is a big change," Nash said. "It’s something that I have to adjust to. Very rarely did I get the ball and catch and shoot in my career."
A bit later, he said, "It’s not going to be the same that it was in Phoenix for me. It’s going to be different. And I have to accept and embrace that and try to help any way that I can."
Steve Nash as a spot-up shooter and Kobe Bryant as a passer. We didn’t envision this when this team came together. We also didn’t envision a 19-25 record with the All-Star break around the corner. If you want to know how this will play out over the next three months, look back at Bryant’s playoff games over the past 16 years.