10:22 PM CST, November 20, 2013
Out on the practice court, beyond window blinds that blocked the view from the media workroom at the Lakers' El Segundo practice facility, Kobe Bryant was moving ever closer toward returning to the lineup.
His teammates had barely finished praising his first all-out effort when he came out Wednesday to practice for the second straight day, walking past cameras and microphones without a word and joining the drills they had already begun. His presence created an undeniable buzz on the sidelines and on the court and lifted his teammates' spirits.
"It's great to have him out there. Happy for him," Steve Blake said before team officials chased the media away. "Obviously he's going to be a game-changer for us and just to see him out there, back to playing again, as a friend of his I'm happy for him."
Bryant's return seven months after he tore his Achilles' tendon can only make the Lakers better, but his teammates can't allow themselves to relax and think he will provide an instant fix for everything that has ailed them.
Bryant isn't expected to play Friday, when the Lakers end a four-day break and face Golden State at Staples Center, but every indication — including his own declaration Tuesday that he can envision playing in the month of November — points toward his imminent return. Where he will play is unclear, though it's likely he would be at small forward, bumping Wesley Johnson out of the starting lineup.
Coach Mike D'Antoni said he has been thinking about the adjustments he will have to make when Bryant returns but hadn't gotten to the point of discussing minutes with Bryant. That conversation isn't far in the future.
"He's kind of an easy player to fit in. He's going to do what he does," D'Antoni said, noting there's little difference between Bryant's being designated the shooting guard or small forward except for his defensive assignments.
"We know where he likes to get the ball. We'll go from there. The biggest thing is just getting him back in game-type situations, game-ready."
Bryant will need awhile to regain his timing and get reaccustomed to the rugged battles and crucial decision-making that can't be simulated in practice. He's 35 and has a lot of hard mileage on his legs, but it would be foolish to underestimate his determination to regain nearly peak form. Even at something close to that he'd still be better than probably 90% of the players in the NBA.
The team he will rejoin is an inconsistent 5-7 so far and hasn't established an identity or rhythm. He will bring energy and new offensive dimensions, but his teammates can't fall into the trap of thinking he will rescue them by himself. They've got to elevate their own games, not slack off, if this season is going to be anything more than a buildup to the Lakers' chances in the draft lottery.
"For sure. Not everything is going to be great or perfect when Kobe steps on the floor," Pau Gasol said.
"I think there's still going to be things that we're going to have to figure out with him on the floor — how to be most effective as a team and individually continue to be aggressive and continue to produce. Because we can't expect him to do all the work. It's a team game, as we all know, and we can only be successful if we all do our part."
Some have played their parts splendidly. Jordan Hill has averaged 18.8 points and 12 rebounds in starting the last four games. Blake has more than adequately filled in while Steve Nash has nursed a back injury, distributing the ball well and working effective pick-and-rolls with Hill. Jodie Meeks has improved dramatically since last season, leading the team in scoring at 13.7 points on 52.8% shooting.
But Nash's back injury is still hanging over them, Gasol's defense remains hit-and-miss and Hill must prove he can stay at this level for more than a few weeks. Leaving Bryant to do all the heavy lifting when he returns will make the Lakers' problems worse, not better.
"We understand. He's still one guy and it's a team game," Blake said. "We have to put it together as a group and that will be a process in itself, with him coming back. So we have a lot to work on."
That they do. "Kobe's going to be Kobe," Hill said, "but everybody's still got to do what they do and we've got to make this work."
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