First things first: It was nice to have Kobe Bryant back on the court. Just seeing him in the lineup and out there on the court was great and I’m looking forward to him and the team building on this first game back and using each proceeding game as a stepping stone towards what they can ultimately be this year. All that said, this game was a great reminder that with Kobe now back in the fold this team has a pretty big piece to incorporate and that will take time and will have some bumps along the way.
Kobe’s play offered spurts of encouragement and spells that showed how much improvement can still be made on his end. Let’s get the not as good stuff out of the way up front. On the night Kobe had 8 turnovers, mostly on plays where he either forced passes into too small a window or misread a play and simply passed the ball to the other team. His timing was off on multiple plays and it produced some plays that he will surely want back when he looks at them on film. Further, when looking for his own shot he was a bit tentative at times and looked to either give up the ball too early or didn’t press the action as he normally would. On one play, Kobe actually got by his man with a nice first step and was fouled from behind right as he left his feet. But rather than shoot and get to the FT line via a continuation, Kobe passed while in the air and the Lakers took the ball out on the side. What seemed clear to me is that Kobe was looking to fit in a bit too much to the style the team has played before this game and he was a little too pass happy.
On the other hand, Kobe did flash some very good playmaking on the night and showed that he hasn’t lost his feel for the game at all. While he only tallied 4 assists, he made several very good reads and was pretty decisive in where he wanted to go with the ball on any given possession. The ball rarely stuck in his hands for more than a few beats and when operating in the P&R he was mostly solid in stringing out his dribble and reading the play in front of him. Again, he got in trouble when he got sloppy with his delivery on some passes, but for the most part I was pleased with how he surveyed the floor and in his initial read of a play.
In terms of his ability to work off the dribble in isolation, I thought we got a mixed bag and come away with no definitive answer as to what he’s capable of doing at this point. On more than one occasion he was able to get a step on his man to gain an advantage off the dribble. That was countered, however, by other plays where he looked a step slow and not able to beat that initial layer of defensive pressure. As for his shot, it looked a bit flat and overall his legs didn’t yet seem game ready. There were not a lot of quick pull ups or explosive movements when working off the dribble, but his footwork looked solid and he looked very comfortable working out of the triple threat anywhere on the court.
All in all, none of what we saw was a surprise and at this point I can’t say I’m overly concerned about where he is. A lot of his issues looked to be a matter of timing and not yet having his full legs under him. Considering he hasn’t played a game in since last April and was talking about not yet having his “sea legs” the other day, what we saw should have been pretty much expected. Now, if he still doesn’t have his legs in a few weeks or still isn’t creating much separation off the dribble via sharp movements, I will reassess. But as of now, I consider tonight a mild success in terms of Kobe as an individual.
From a team standpoint, this first game showed that there is much work to do in terms of sorting out lineups and rotations. The Lakers’ best three players tonight were Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, and Xavier Henry. All three of those guys are natural shooting guards and down the stretch, when he had to choose, Mike D’Antoni put in Kobe and took out Henry while leaving Meeks and Young in. After the game D’Antoni said that he wanted to play Kobe because that’s what will happen in the future so, I can see his logic there. What is harder to sell is leaving in Young while taking out Henry considering how well the latter had played to that point. In the moment I thought taking out Henry was a questionable move, but that was the decision and I can live with it. It may not have worked out tonight, but it could have. Again, it’s not like Young had played poorly to that point.
The larger question, though, is how the lineups will get sorted out when everyone is healthy and what the substitutions will be like to build successful lineups. This may be the biggest challenge facing D’Antoni and tonight was an example of that, especially on the wing.
What didn’t aid in matters, though, was that the team really didn’t have any big men play particularly well. Pau Gasol was dreadful overall and sat the entire fourth quarter. Robert Sacre was in over his head against Jonas Valanciunas and got into early foul trouble that landed him on the bench. But even when he was in the game, he wasn’t making much of an impact outside of a handful of well played team defensive possessions. Jordan Hill turned it on late in the game, working the glass and doing other Jordan Hill things, but wasn’t that strong in his early stint in the first half. I was glad that Hill got the minutes down the stretch because he was the big man playing the best, but overall the Raptors’ front court had their way with their Lakers’ counterparts and if you’re wondering where this game was lost, that’s where you will find your answers.
Overall, I am disappointed in the loss and wish on the night Kobe returned the team, as a whole, could have played better. There were some signs of life in stretches, but it is clear it will take time to incorporate Kobe back into the lineup and for him and the guys who share the court with him to find a cohesion and balance in how they operate. Some of this will be dependent on coaching, but more of it will depend on guys just getting familiar and acclimated in how they best work together.
There are still some things that concern (Pau, especially, with his bad ankle and heavy legs needs to find his way soon) and sorting them out as quickly as possible is obviously a priority. But, for one night at least, I will put those things in the back seat and just say it’s good to have #24 back.