Kobe Bryant pushes onward

BOSTON -- As Kobe Bryant watched teammate Pau Gasol gimp to an awaiting town car on crutches, en route to a doctor's examination that would reveal a torn plantar fascia muscle that will sideline him at least four to six weeks, the leader of the Los Angeles Lakers visibly sighed.

"You get more appreciative of [your accomplishments] at the end," Bryant said, "because you realize how hard it is."

Even in the wake of the news that Gasol will be out of lineup for the foreseeable future, Kobe stubbornly insists this Lakers team can be a factor in the playoffs, even though it is currently in 10th place in the Western Conference.

But, he conceded, it will require him to maintain his role as the unrelenting taskmaster.

And that means Dwight Howard will continue to feel the crack of his whip.

Bryant has publicly challenged Howard to play through a torn labrum in his shoulder, particularly now that Gasol will be out for an extended amount of time.

"We don't have time for [Howard's shoulder] to heal," Kobe said in an exclusive interview on Wednesday. "We need some urgency.

"[Dwight] has never been in a position where someone is driving him as hard as I am, as hard as this organization is.

"It's win a championship or everything is a complete failure. That's just how we [the Lakers] do it. And that's foreign to him.

"When you think about it, there aren't many organizations that look at it that way. There are only two that can really honestly say that's what they live by: Los Angeles and Boston."

Howard, who arrived to the Lakers in a highly publicized trade last summer, is performing below his career average in points per game (16.5), rebounds (8.5) and shooting percentage (.496). L.A. expected a dominant big man who would thrust the team into championship contention, but residual issues from offseason back surgery and a recent shoulder injury has hampered him.

In a recent interview with ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, Howard preached patience. He reminded Smith that it took Kobe and Shaq three years before they found the proper formula to win a championship.

"We don't have three years," Kobe said. "We've got this year."

Bryant said he has implored Howard to block out the media and fan criticism.

"Dwight worries too much about what people think," Kobe said. "I told him, 'You can't worry about that. It's holding you back.' He says, 'OK, OK, OK, but it's always hovering around him. He just wants people to like him. He doesn't want to let anyone down, and that gets him away from what he should be doing.

"Take his free throw shooting. It's all mental with him. Like in practice. He's shooting without a care and he hits 10 in a row. But then we get in a game and everyone is looking at him and there's all these expectations, and he starts worrying about what people are thinking, what people will say."

Kobe said the Lakers' recent resurgence has a lot to do with how point guard Steve Nash has been playing.

"Before, Steve was trying to manage both Dwight and Pau and that dynamic instead of just playing," Kobe explained. "He was trying to make sure Dwight was taken care of, that Pau got what he needed.

"The night of the Minnesota game [a 111-100 win on Feb. 1], I pulled him aside before [tipoff] and said, 'Steve, we gotta hoop. We gotta hoop. There's no reason why we shouldn't get a good look every time down. So come down and do what you have to do. If you have a shot, take it. Let them take care of themselves. Just play.' Since then, I think he's been a lot more comfortable."

Bryant said Tuesday night's game against Brooklyn "was a big test for Steve. Matching up with Deron [Williams] is tough. He's a Cadillac."

Before Gasol was injured, he was mired in one of the worst seasons of his career. Coach Mike D'Antoni reduced his role, changed his position and brought him off the bench. When Howard was sidelined with his shoulder injury, Gasol was inserted back into the starting lineup and was beginning to flourish again before he injured his foot against the Nets.

"It's frustrating," Kobe acknowledged. "It's really no fault of Pau's. He's the same Pau, but they tried to push another agenda and go away from him. I was like, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa. Am I out of the loop? The guy won us back-to-back championships. Did I miss something?'

"Finally the guy gets put back in the lineup and he gets you 20 and 12 and you're saying, 'All right, let's go,' and now he's down again."

Bryant firmly believes Gasol has suffered from the departure of both Andrew Bynum (in the Howard trade) and former Lakers forward Lamar Odom, who now plays for the Clippers.

"There's no question we miss Lamar," Bryant said. "I always felt if we had Lamar last year we would have won that series [against Oklahoma City in the Western Conference semifinals].

"You go through all these things and you start to ask, 'What the hell is going on?'"

Kobe remains optimistic. He likes the fact his team still has uncommon size up front. He believes the team is learning to play together.

"When we get Pau back, we'll be all right," he said. "The way we're playing now, when it comes down to the end of the game, we're going to be fine. That Brooklyn game [a 92-83 win Tuesday], we just found a scab and kept picking at it. With Steve and me doing my thing, we'll get there.

"Plus, I hate to lose. That hasn't changed."

Bryant's contract is up in two seasons. He will be 35 then and admitted he's thought about the fact his career is winding down.

"I think about it often," he said.

He understands the clock is ticking. The challenge remains convincing his teammates they are on borrowed time as well.