Tonight’s game offers several subplots that, on any other night would really pique my interest. For one, I really like Raptors’ big man Jonas Valancunias and am interested in seeing how me matches up against the Lakers’ front line (and them versus him). Two, I’ve been quite impressed with what I’ve seen out of LA native and former USC product DeMar DeRozan. The shooting guard is leading the Raptors in scoring at over 21 points a game, is shooting 37% from behind the arc, and is starting to make good on all his physical ability. Combine these things with my consistent amazement with the fact that the Raptors have become “Rudy Gay’s team” and I would be looking forward to this game regardless if there wasn’t a bigger story coming into this game.
But on the night that Kobe Bryant will make his 2013-14 season debut and play in his first game since tearing his achilles tendon last April, no other story line really matters that much to me.
I have been trying for weeks to come up with the right words to describe what I am feeling heading into tonight. Excitement doesn’t quite capture it. Neither does anxiousness. Neither does any other slew of adjectives that I’ve been coming up with in my head and deleting from the page as I try to type this out. Kobe is finally back and I am at a loss for words. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s done this to me, but most other times it’s been related to some feat he’s performed on the floor. Tonight he’s back from one of the must crushing injuries a basketball player can suffer and will put his game on display — for praise, for critique, for everyone to dissect.
What we can expect from him is an unknown, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ideas as to how he can be most effective within the context of the team he is returning to. And on that note, some thoughts on his first game back…
*The rumors are that the Lakers will start Steve Blake, Kobe, Wes Johnson, Pau Gasol, and Robert Sacre. Kobe slides back into his natural shooting guard spot with this group and my hope is that he can find his niche within this group by adding his skill set to what they have already been doing well. What this means, then, is that I still hope to see Steve Blake with the ball in his hands to start possessions and for Kobe to operate as a shot creator and finisher after the team runs its initial actions. Kobe is a great practitioner from the wing and would do well if he could get shots much in the way that Xavier Henry and Nick Young do when they are paired with Blake. What I envision is Kobe operating on either wing (strong or weak side), and either coming to the ball side off picks or operating as a kick out option after pick and rolls or post ups on his side. This will allow Kobe to work against defenders who are closing out against him or trailing him off picks before he makes his catch. Out of these actions, he can then work off the dribble or shoot spot up jumpers when defenses don’t get to him in time.
*When Mike D’Antoni starts to make his substitutions is when I hope to see Kobe go into more of a ball handler/shot creator off the dribble role. With Farmar out, Kobe will play a fair amount of “point guard” and while this position isn’t something familiar in name, it definitely is in terms of role. Just last season, Kobe strung together several games of double digit assists working as the primary ball handler in the P&R, picking out the roll man or spot up shooters with equal effectiveness. Tonight, I hope to see Kobe aggressive when he’s in this role, looking to turn the corner and get into the teeth of the defense where he can either get off little mid-range jumpers or hit the open man with passes when the defense collapses.
*One way to get Kobe comfortable is to have him operate at the elbow area where he can survey the defense and make pass/shoot decisions against a spaced defense. I’d love to see him operate as the point person in the Lakers’ HORNS sets, playing the role that Pau typically does in these formations. When the Lakers go small, going HORNS with Blake initiating to Kobe at the elbow while Shawne Williams (or Wes Johnson) space the floor as PF’s while Young (or Meeks) do the same as the other wing, can allow Kobe to work from a spot on the floor that is familiar to him while also putting him in a position where he can make plays for others without having to do all the creating off the dribble that he would in a classic P&R action.
All of that said, if Kobe has the ball in his hands a lot the one thing we should be patient with is his ability to make passes on time and on target. Practice speed is one thing, but game speed is quite another. Kobe may find himself a beat behind in making his reads and that may lead to turnovers and or passes that aren’t conducive to getting his teammates good looks. I expect this to improve over time (from game to game and, even, as the game progresses), but out of the gate we may see some passes that simply don’t get the job done.
But even with that, what I also expect is for Kobe to bring a level of competitiveness and excitement to the game that only builds on what the team has been doing in his absence. One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed watching this team play so much is because of their proclivity to compete regardless of what the scoreboard says in terms of time and point differential. These guys are capable of having some down moments, but for the most part they get after it and don’t stop until the final buzzer sounds. Tonight, the guys surrounding Kobe will need to keep up that intensity and not get caught up in the moment that is his return to action. Kobe playing within himself will help with this, but his mates must help him by continuing to cut and make themselves available for passes with the same vigor they have all season.
I haven’t said much about the Raptors yet, but one thing I will say is that they should be just as amped up as the Lakers are for this game. The contest will be played on NBA TV and with it being hyped for days as “Kobe’s return” I am sure they’d love nothing more than to send the Lakers home with a loss and to silence the crowd early. They have an explosive wing trio in Lowry, DeRozan, and Gay and the Lakers’ defense will need to be up to the task of slowing these guys down. There will be no place to “hide” Kobe on D and he will need to be as dialed in on that end of the floor as he will be on offense. The Lakers have already struggled in allowing dribble penetration and in protecting the paint and tonight they won’t get much rest with the Raptors’ trio attacking the rim. Sacre and Gasol will need to be at their best defensively as back line helpers, but it must start with Blake, Kobe, and Johnson doing their jobs on the front end.
Lastly, for the fans, sit back and enjoy this game as best you can. The buzz in the air will be palpable not just in the arena, but coming off your TV screens. Go with that energy and soak it in. Kobe Bean Bryant is back in action tonight. The wait is over and we finally get to see #24 lace ‘em up and go into battle. Something that has always been so normal takes on a greater importance tonight and you should try to enjoy every second of it. We don’t get too many of these moments as fans.