OAKLAND, Calif. -- A thin line separates confidence and delusion, and Kobe Bryant is straddling it. It's the only conclusion one could reach after judging the Los Angeles Lakers star's comments Tuesday after he tied the worst shooting performance of his career in any game in which he attempted at least five shots.
In a humiliating 111-77 loss to the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena, Bryant shot 1-of-14 from the field, including 1-of-7 from 3-point range, and scored four points. He also shot 1-of-14 in a loss last season to the San Antonio Spurs.
Bryant is the first player this season with four or fewer points on 14 or more field goal attempts.
Many of his shots hit the front of the rim. Some 3-point attempts were air-balls. He blew one layup that should have been a dunk -- and probably would have been years ago, before all his injuries. And one shot, perhaps the cruelest of all, became lodged where the rim and backboard meet. An opposing player had to help pry it loose.
The performance was his worst so far this season, yet, frankly, it wasn't too dissimilar from those that preceded it. In his 20th NBA season, the 37-year-old Bryant has looked his age. His body has performed as if it's carrying a ton of NBA mileage and has endured three consecutive season-ending injuries, which it has.
But once again, Bryant said he's fine, that his health is fine, that his shot is fine, and he diverted the conversation elsewhere, largely to his teammates and the team's overall scheme.
"I'm not really worried about it, honestly," Bryant said. "My shooting will be better. I could've scored 80 [Tuesday]. It wouldn't have made a damn difference. We just have bigger problems. I could be out there averaging 35 points a game. We'd be what, 3-11? We've got to figure out how to play systematically in a position that's going to keep us in ball games."
Read the above quote again, or a few times, if necessary. Specifically, re-read the part about scoring 80 points in a game or averaging 35.
Those comments were made by a player who is averaging more field goal attempts per game (a team-high 16.4) than points (15.2); a player who is shooting a career-worst 31.1 percent from the floor; a player who has now had 12 consecutive games scoring fewer than 25 points while shooting worse than 50 percent, the longest such streak of his career.
(For those interested, ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh did the math -- at Bryant's shooting rate this season, he'd need to shoot 97 times to reach 80 points.)
The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. It's a reality that is increasingly apparent to all except Bryant, who said he shot poorly simply because he was frustrated with himself and his teammates.
"Frustration kind of got to me tonight," Bryant said. "The fact that -- the way I played, the way I shot, blowing coverages defensively, coming down offensively and not having concept of what we're trying to do. It just kind of got to me a little bit and frustrated me and it affected my shot."
Bryant was pressed on his health, but he stayed on point.
"I feel okay," he said. "Just pissed. Just frustrated with what we were doing. It bothered me, so I got out of my Zen tonight."
Bryant also said he needs help from his teammates to get easier shots.
"In all honesty, it was tough, the shots that I take, pull-up shots and jumpers and contested jumpers -- those are tough shots to hit at 27. It's very tough to hit at 37," he said. "I've got to do a better job of demanding some help off the ball, get some easier chances -- pin-downs, picks, catch-and-shoots, things of that nature. Tonight was just very frustrating. It kind of got the better of me."
A better job of demanding some help off the ball.
In many games this season, Bryant has struggled, but afterward, he has often done what he did Tuesday night -- take the conversation elsewhere. Perhaps it's a lack of ball movement. Perhaps it's how he needs to defer more to the young players. Perhaps it's how those young players need to help him get easier shots. Perhaps it's how those young players don't know the system yet. Such answers seem off the mark, just like many of Bryant's shots.
Now, without question, it must be difficult beyond comprehension for Bryant, one of the game's all-time greatest players and most ferocious competitors, to accept (much less admit) what time, mileage and injuries have done to his body. But on more than one occasion this season, and during the preseason, he has referenced the fact that he could still pile up a ton of points if he so desired. Tuesday night was only the latest example, though it was the most blatant yet.
Surely, Bryant carries the same supreme confidence in himself that has always been there, but for him to speak of his capabilities in such a way when the on-the-court product is on the exact opposite end of the spectrum, as it was Tuesday, is alarming.
Marcus Thompson, a sports columnist for the Bay Area News Group, tweeted after Tuesday's game: "Several Warriors players were shocked at how far Kobe has fallen. Lots of respect for him in Dubs locker room. They grew up on Black Mamba."
Those players aren't alone. Many observers watching Bryant in person or on TV this season must feel the same, even die-hard Lakers/Kobe fans. And for as much as NBA-focused pockets of social media discussed the Warriors on Tuesday, there was just as much chatter, if not more, about Bryant and how, at this point, his likely farewell tour -- one that's often playing out on national television -- is becoming sadder by the game.
That notion was expressed even more so when Bryant bottomed out early in the third quarter against the Warriors. His first shot of the second half was a pull-up 3-pointer from 25 feet. The shot drew nothing but air, as several others have this season. His next shot, a 16-foot pull-up jumper made contact, at least, but it became stuck between iron and glass.
Videos of both plays went viral immediately and were declared emblematic of Bryant's season and of how far he has fallen.
ESPN's real plus-minus, which measures a player's impact on team performance per 100 possessions, placed Bryant 381st in the NBA and 74th for small forwards, the position that Bryant has largely played this season. That's down from last season, when Bryant ranked 301st in the NBA and 55th among shooting guards, the position he primarily played.
Bryant's player efficiency rating (10.3) is tied for the second-lowest on the team with backup center Tarik Black. The only lower PER on the Lakers belongs to Robert Sacre, who has played four minutes this season.
Lakers coach Byron Scott dismissed lowering Bryant's minutes, saying, "I have faith in Kobe."
Scott's comments piggy-backed his remarks to reporters Monday when he defended Bryant's poor shooting and poor shot selection, saying that Bryant's long career has earned him "that privilege, basically."
On nights when Bryant simply doesn't have it -- and those nights are becoming more and more frequent -- it's apparent that Scott admires Bryant, a former teammate, far too much to rein him in, especially now in what seems to be Bryant's final games. Scott has said -- and did so again Tuesday --that he would like Bryant to shoot fewer 3-pointers, but Bryant has ignored that decree again and again. Instead, Bryant has done as he has pleased, much as he has during his career. For now, Bryant is raging against the dying of the light, a battle he cannot win. No one can.
"Kobe been in the league 20 years. Father Time is undefeated," Charlamagne tha God tweeted during Tuesday's game. "Y'all act like he lost it no he just exhausted it."
There's little doubt that Bryant will continue to swear that he could, at any moment, ignite a scoring flurry, as he did so often in the past. Each time he makes such comments, he moves further and further from reality, and, along the way, blurs the already thin line separating confidence and delusion. His NBA exit doesn't have to be graceful, but it doesn't have to be this ugly, either.