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ON THE NBA

For Bryant, it's about a crown, not a carrot

December 01, 2008|MARK HEISLER | Heisler is a Times staff writer.

Only 38 points separated Kobe Bryant from yet another milestone Sunday night, that being the number he would need to become the youngest player to score 22,000 points, beating Wilt Chamberlain by a day.

OK, so it wasn't much of a milestone. Since people really don't talk about "the magic 22,000-point barrier," it was like a made-for-TV movie compared to the ones in the theaters.

Nevertheless, there was a time when Bryant would leap at any bar anyone set, when he was keenly aware of the times he was on the court against Tracy McGrady or Vince Carter.

Perhaps that's why when Lakers Coach Phil Jackson learned it had been in the newspapers before the game, he sighed, "That was like a carrot in front of a donkey, whoever did that.

"Who did that? It was stupid. That could really mess up the game tonight."

Actually, it was The Times' Broderick Turner who wrote it, although it didn't exactly come from a subversive source, but the Lakers' game notes, put out by their crack publicity staff.

As Jackson noted, Bryant has had "agendas at time," but this wasn't one of them.

Happily for the Lakers, the donkey, er, Bryant, didn't even know about it, not that that would necessarily stop him from getting the 38.

He had 21 at halftime of Sunday's night's 112-99 victory over the Toronto Raptors, having taken only 11 shots and made eight.

At that point, it looked as if he would get the next 17 points, possibly in the third quarter. The Raptors are the team he hit for 81 three seasons ago, 55 of which came in the second half.

In a shocker, he took three shots in the third quarter and missed two, while recording four assists.

He didn't even play in the fourth quarter, finishing with 23 points. So Wilt is still the youngest to reach 22,000, or, as a headline on ESPN.com put it, "Kobe misses milestone in Lakers' rout of Raptors."

"I had no idea," Bryant said afterward. "I've got to be honest with you, I don't follow anything of that sort. I just go out and play."

Told of Jackson's donkey-carrot parable, Bryant laughed it off.

"Phil likes to give you guys quotes to mess with you because you write that stuff," he said. "At some point, you've got to figure out he does that stuff just to mess with you."

I know, but that point will be sometime in the future. At the moment, I have a column to write.

Of course, Bryant also insists he has never cared about records, milestones, landmarks or opponents.

"No, you guys have me all wrong," he said. "I only just play. I play hard. I play the same way all the time. I never concerned myself with milestones or anything like that.

'"Honestly, if I cared about that, I would have just gone to college, came into the league and averaged 30, got my scoring [average] up."

And the time he scored 50 points four times in a row, he wasn't thinking about doing it again?

"If I was, I would have got it," said Bryant. "I would have shot the ball 30 times."

He may be right about the records, milestones and landmarks but some of his shootouts with rival stars are still the stuff of legend, like the night in Oakland when he and the Warriors' Antawn Jamison both went for 50 and Kobe's teammates on the bench yelled for him to pass the ball.

"Can you feel the love?" then-teammate Rick Fox said later. "You couldn't feel the love that night."

However, there's a difference between the 2008 Kobe and the ones that preceded it. This one really does play smarter, is more under control, makes teammates better and only takes over when he thinks the team needs it.

That's why his averages have dropped from 35 to 32 to 28 to 24.5 the last four seasons. If LeBron James beats him out for MVP this season, it will be because the Cavaliers need LeBron to be all he can be, and the Lakers need Bryant to be less than he can be.

Bryant still has his moments, such as the one in the third quarter when he took a defensive rebound, spotted a streaking Trevor Ariza and threw the ball halfway up the stands at the other end, after which Jackson pointed his finger to his temple, indicating Kobe should think about such things, while shaking his head.

"I apologized to Trevor," said Bryant. "He [Jackson] said, 'You should apologize to me.'

"I said, 'What do you want me to do, write you a love letter?' "

Once an eye roll from Jackson wouldn't have gone over so well with Bryant, but that's something else that has changed. Anything is possible, if your organization doesn't blow to bits in the meantime.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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