Bigger defensive role for Kobe Bryant

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- If the Los Angeles Lakers are going to make a push to get back in the postseason hunt, they'll have to improve their defense.

Therefore, the Lakers have turned to none other than Kobe Bryant to spearhead that defensive turnaround.

Bryant drew the primary defensive assignment against Kyrie Irving on Sunday and limited the Cleveland Cavaliers star guard to just 15 points in the Lakers' 113-93 victory.

In the wake of Bryant's outstanding effort against Irving, Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni has vowed to use the veteran guard in similar defensive situations.

"I think that really helped us," D'Antoni said. "It helped us against the Clippers with Chris Paul. (Bryant) wants to take the challenge, and it really helps us."

While Bryant has the defensive credentials to perform in such a role -- he's made the NBA's All-Defensive first team nine times and the second team three times -- it's a surprising job for the 34-year-old to assume at this stage of his career.

Last season, Bryant was left off the NBA's All-Defensive first team for the first time since 2005, as Paul and Memphis' Tony Allen bumped him to the second team.

The duty of playing lockdown defense also will cause Bryant, the league's leading scorer at 29.8 points per game, to expend more energy that could be used on the offensive end.

However, the Lakers are ranked sixth in the league in offensive efficiency with a 106.3 points per 100 possessions average. D'Antoni figures Bryant's scoring can take a back seat if it means his dedication to defense can help the Lakers' porous defensive efficiency -- 103.7 points allowed per 100 possessions, which ranks 21st in the NBA.

"He disrupts the whole offense on the ball," said D'Antoni, who added that Bryant will draw either Brandon Jennings or Monta Ellis when the Lakers host the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday. "He's done that a couple games, so we'll continue to milk that one."

Lakers guard Steve Nash said that a more difficult assignment actually makes Bryant a better defensive player than when he's left to guard someone who is not as big of a threat.

"Kobe's a guy that likes a challenge, so to give him a challenge I think sometimes is best for us," Nash said. "Sometimes when he maybe is guarding someone who isn't going to demand his interest, he can wane a little bit. But when we put him in a position where he's challenged, he can be phenomenal.

"I think it's almost two-fold. I think he was the key to the game (Sunday). He took Irving out of the game and at the same time, offensively he was terrific. So that's the type of player he's capable of being on a nightly basis, as we all know, and I think for our team, his leadership and the way he took that challenge was phenomenal."

The challenge for D'Antoni in bestowing the new defensive responsibilities on Bryant is to try to limit his playing time so that the 17-year veteran doesn't get run down with 45 games remaining in the regular season.

Bryant is averaging 38.7 minutes per game this season, which ranks No. 1 among all guards in the NBA.

"That's what worries me and that's why I took a long time to put him there and that's why, even now, I still have some trepidation," D'Antoni said. "But he's taking the challenge. I told him his minutes got to go down -- they got to go down. He doesn't love that, but he's willing to do anything to make us win.

"He's always going to be focal point or the lightning rod of a lot of things here in Los Angeles. But I've only found a guy that wants to win and as a coach, I couldn't ask for anything more than that."