Bryant's big scoring days may be over

LOS ANGELES -- We all watched the highlights from Kobe Bryant's 81-point game over the weekend, and in many ways it seemed like watching ancient history.

Saturday marked the five-year anniversary of Bryant's toasting Toronto, and since then his jersey number has gone from No. 8 to No. 24, his teammates have changed from the likes of Smush Parker and Kwame Brown to Pau Gasol and Ron Artest and even head coach Phil Jackson has gotten rid of his goatee, opting for a clean-shaven look.

But the most significant change when it comes to Kobe is that the days of his racking up points on the scoreboard like it was a pinball machine may be over.

Heading into Tuesday's game against the Utah Jazz, Bryant has gone 153 regular-season games without a 50-point game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The last time he topped the 50-point plateau was nearly two years ago when he scored 61 against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 2, 2009.

It took Bryant 285 games to have his first 50-point outburst (Nov. 3, 1996-Dec. 5, 2000) but since then, the longest he's gone without a 50-pointer is 165 games (March 30, 2003-Dec. 18, 2005).

The current streak has been as much about an adjustment in style as it has been because of any atrophy in abilities, however.

Bryant, possessing one of the most complete offensive skill sets in NBA history, has had it ingrained in him since he was young to look to score as option A, option B and option C.

"That's what I do best," Bryant said last season when he was approaching 25,000 career points. "Steve Nash is a great passer, I'm a great scorer. It's what I do."

Whether it's because of his ailing right knee, which Bryant described as nearly "bone on bone," or simply due to recognition of the talent surrounding him, he is changing what he does.

Now option B is often Bryant looking to pass -- or he's setting up a teammate as option A.

In the month of January, Bryant has had five games with seven assists or more, and the Lakers have gone 4-1 in those contests. As Bryant's passing has increased, so too has his offensive efficiency. In Los Angeles' past seven games, Bryant has shot 61-of-112 from the field (54.5 percent).

"He's still one of the top five most difficult guys to prepare for because of his power, his influence of doing almost anything," said Denver coach George Karl before Bryant went out and put up 18 points and seven assists on the Nuggets. "He can make the 3, he can post up, he can run pick-and-rolls and he can facilitate. Right now, I think he's playing more like a point guard on that team than ever before. They're running a lot of perimeter pick-and-rolls for him."

He hasn't quit wearing the scorer's cape cold turkey. Even though Bryant's minutes are down from 38.8 last season to 33.2 this year, his usage rate remains tops in the league. Bryant has had 19 games this season where he's taken 20 or more shots, but the Lakers are just 10-9 in those games.

Bryant will still be forever known for his penchant for putting up points. He has passed Dominique Wilkins and Oscar Robertson this season on the NBA's all-time scoring list and is only 34 points from passing Hakeem Olajuwon for eighth place, but there seems to be an acknowledgement on his part that scoring less on his own could lead to more rings.

After all, Bryant has won two more championships in the nearly two years since he topped 50 points in a game.

After scoring 13 points in a win in Game 5 of the first round against Oklahoma City back in April, he framed the slowed-down scoring as a tactical decision rather than a decline.

"I'll tell you what, if I didn't have Pau [Gasol], Andrew [Bynum] and the crew that I have, I'd score 45-50 points and everybody would say, 'Damn, he shoots too much,'" Bryant said. "I got a great crew. I don't need to do that. I can pick my poison so when I get in the paint teams have to make choices. If they play me, I'll kick it to my guys and they'll score and they'll have big nights. If they don't, then I'll have a big night. It's as simple as that."

Jackson said that Bryant has shifted back to playing a guard role instead of the wing he was occupying when Bynum was out to start the season.

"We've executed some things that we normally don't run quite this early in the season, but [Bryant has] started on his own to try and bring back things that we've done in the playoffs," Jackson said. "We've still not been doing it really well, but George [Karl] is right, there's much more direction with Kobe handling the ball. ... He's very good at it. He can run it very well."

Bryant is 32 years old and has already played more total games (1,264) than Michael Jordan played in his career (1,251). Bryant has three years left on his contract after this one, when he'll be playing as an 18-year veteran.

"In this system [Bryant] can play a long time, because he can always defer and nobody knows when he's going to go off," said Lakers special assistant coach Craig Hodges last season. "He can easily [average] 10 [points], 10 [assists] and six [rebounds], then go for 25 [points a game] in the playoffs. He can easily play a season like that, and let Pau be an MVP candidate."

Of course, the ultimate scoring side of Kobe might not be finished just yet. The Lakers play the Knicks at the Garden in nine games, meaning Bryant could put on a show to stop his 50-less streak at 162 games, keeping it short of the longest drought he's had since having his first 50-point game.

Just because his big scoring nights may be history doesn't mean Bryant doesn't have an encore up his sleeve.

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.