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LAKERS REPORT

Happy and Healthy Bryant Providing Needed Boost in a Number of Areas

April 14, 2001|TIM BROWN

Not long ago, Kobe Bryant trudged from the floor, limping, dropped to the bench, cranked his right shoulder, grimaced, put a towel over his head, told trainer Gary Vitti he was fine and, yes, still wanted to play. He pulled at the pad on his elbow, heard the whistles, stood, pried his chin from his chest and tried it all again.

It was how Bryant spent his timeouts. For weeks.

Now, he laughs. He pats guys on the head. Sometimes he won't even sit down.

So close to healthy he can almost see his regular game, Bryant has returned to energize a Laker team that needed an athlete, a defender, and an offensive option.

Derek Fisher, out three-quarters of the season recovering from a stress fracture in his foot, knows the feeling of freedom Bryant is experiencing.

"If you're not a participant, you get a totally different perspective of what's going on," he said.

"I sat out 62 games. The only way I could come back and be as effective as I have been is from watching and seeing what's going on. The last 10 or 11 games that Kobe missed, I can speak from experience, it's amazing when you can sit there and be on the outside looking in and see what's going on with the team, see how things evolve, see who's open when and where. He's done an excellent job of coming back and fitting into the rhythm we established while he was out."

Perhaps as a result, Bryant has 13 assists in two games. He had nine assists, along with 30 points, in Thursday night's 119-102 victory over Minnesota. After a kick-out pass that Rick Fox converted into a three-point basket, Bryant mauled Fox all the way down the floor.

"That's a big key," Coach Phil Jackson said. "He drew the defense, read the defense. He took some shots that aren't his shots, though, the kind that are challenged and yet he can still score over people. That's one of the trademarks of a super player, being able to score regardless, and he likes to do that. I thought he carried us--with Shaq [O'Neal] being on the bench. That was a big part of it. All those things, really, I thought were important to our team and for him."

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O'Neal has scored at least 31 points in nine consecutive games, averaging 33.9 points in that period. He also has at least 10 rebounds in 15 consecutive games.

The Lakers, then, have won six consecutive games. They even--gasp--have developed a decent running game, outscoring Phoenix and Minnesota on the fastbreak.

"We've been playing at high energy," O'Neal said. "We've got our defensive intensity back. It's looking pretty good. We have to maintain that the last few games and into the playoffs. If we can do that, I like our chances. I mean, I've always liked our chances, despite what went on this season. But now I think if we play like that, the sky's the limit for this team."

Bryant and O'Neal combined for 15 assists Thursday. Five led to baskets by one or the other.

"We're both doing a pretty good job of getting guys involved, moving the ball," O'Neal said. "If we continue to do that, and teammates keep staying up, like I said, the sky's the limit."

Said one player, noting the team's sudden surge: "Well, no one can say we peaked too early."

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The hordes of college underclassmen and handful of high school seniors declaring for the June 27 NBA draft could help the Lakers, who don't have a pick and will be left to sift through the remains. More likely, the Lakers will consider using their $3.2-million traded player exception to trade into the draft, or to acquire a veteran player, usually Jackson's preference.

Jackson has said he would like to add speed, particularly in the backcourt. The Lakers also hope to sign a shooter or two, critical even before the NBA legalized zone defenses.

"I don't think it changes significantly what we do," General Manager Mitch Kupchak said.

"When you have a post presence like we do, it's important to have a good perimeter game. You need good shooters anyway."

Kupchak attended the Portsmouth Invitational tournament last week in Virginia. He will also attend evaluation-type tournaments in Phoenix in May and Chicago in June.

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Once hoping to return for the last game or two of the regular season, Ron Harper, recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, estimated a return sometime in the first round of the playoffs. J.R. Rider is around if Harper can't return.

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