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LAKER REPORT

With Bryant, Tonight's Game Gets Four Stars

October 23, 2003|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

Kobe Bryant, 20 pounds lighter yet carrying more weight than ever, will play for the Lakers tonight, on the basketball court and before a basketball crowd for the first time since he was charged with felony sexual assault in July.

He will play beside Shaquille O'Neal, with whom he has won three NBA championships, and Karl Malone and Gary Payton, free agents who came to the Lakers for just this kind of shot.

The Lakers play the Clippers tonight in an exhibition game at the Arrowhead Pond. For the first time outside of a practice gym and their own imaginations, those four will be on the floor, Bryant not yet himself, the rest of them not quite familiar with one another, but everyone apparently gaining. They open the regular season against the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday night, probably too soon to have everyone integrated, but, then, the Lakers have never been much for anything before April.

"I'll do what I can and not do what I can't," said Bryant, who since July has taken a flexible position on everything, it seems, but his potential free agency. That he has planned.

Bryant's trainer, Joe Carbonne, told him not to expect to be himself, totally, until late December. "So," Bryant said after practice Wednesday, "I'll just go with his word."

The Lakers will play 25 games before Christmas.

Their effort to understand one another's games starts, with a gentle shove, tonight, with a couple of eight-minute runs for Bryant and a few laughs among teammates. Bryant, of course, is the one they've been waiting for, now that O'Neal is back from his heel injury and Payton and Malone have had enough of practicing with the "B" team.

Coach Phil Jackson said he believed Bryant, as frail as he appears, could quickly be the player he was in the last couple of seasons, when he frequently was the most skilled and most dynamic player on the floor.

"I don't think there will be anything drastically different about him," Jackson said. "I think he's going to be able to conserve more energy now that's Payton's on the team and can handle a lot of the pushing the ball and a lot of the pressure of breaking down a team's defense in front of him. I think it'll save him for fourth-quarter things he can do.

"He was pretty special today in practice. I asked him how he felt on a dunk that he made and he said he's not elevating quite the same as he was before. But he still feels that he's there, he can get up, he can do what he needs to do to finish a play."

In a rationalization vacuum, Bryant's training-camp absences and regular-season deficiencies might serve the Lakers well. At the end of the 2000-01 season, he sat out nine late-season games because of a sore foot. When Bryant returned, the Lakers' focus had swung back to O'Neal, Bryant joined in, and the team won 15 of 16 postseason games en route to the second of their three titles.

The possible parallel had occurred to Jackson, particularly in regard to having Payton handle some of the backcourt workload.

"The best of all worlds is everybody's together and it works out," he said. "But I think that there's a lot that has opened Kobe's eyes. [Tuesday] he said he felt a lot fresher at the end of practice because he didn't have to push the ball up. He could be down on the receiving end and he could do things without the basketball, play a little bit more without the ball rather than have it in his hands all the time, where all the defense is facing him and be the key person the team is trying to stop. I think that's going to liberate him for a lot of things, and I think it's going to allow us to do things as a team."

That's fine with Bryant.

"Oh, man, it makes my life a lot easier," he said. "It means I don't have to bring it up, give it up, then get it back. I just run the lane, move without the basketball. It makes my life a lot easier."

*

Because of injuries to Rick Fox (foot), Brian Cook (finger), Slava Medvedenko (heel) and Jamal Sampson (back), the Lakers are expected to carry 15 players into the regular season.... Devean George complained of a stiff left foot but practiced Wednesday.... The Lakers will wear their popular white jerseys for home Sunday games again this season. They also will wear blue throwback jerseys from the early 1960s four times, twice at home and twice on the road.... Under the NBA's realignment, the Lakers are expected to remain in the Pacific Division with the Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns. The Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle SuperSonics will move out of the division.

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