You know it's the playoffs when Kobe Bryant is speaking in clipped and barely audible answers. It reflects his dialed-in focus. It reveals his want to end interviews quickly. It likely showcases the fourth estate not always asking the most intelligent questions. But that's not what made his session after Saturday's practice turn sour.
A reporter mentioned Bryant's 43% mark from the field, his lowest since 1997-98, his second year in the NBA. Bryant sarcastically blamed it on "old age," while Lakers Coach Mike Brown thoughtfully attributed the lockout-compressed season, Bryant's 38.3 minutes a game and the system's fluctuating offense. But Bryant refused to use those excuses, reiterating that his 16th year in the NBA at age 33 reveals that "I'm just old." So much so that when asked if the Lakers can't win an NBA championship because he's old, Bryant simply said, "of course."
Left unsaid about Bryant's effort to motivate himself is that this has actually been one of his most productive seasons recently despite the lackluster shooting percentage.
After having innovative procedures on his right knee and left ankle last summer in Germany, Bryant played at a more aggressive pace. So much so that his average of 27.9 points trailed only three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant and marked his highest scoring average since the 2007-08 season. Bryant managed to keep those high numbers despite at times nursing a torn ligament in his right wrist, a fractured nose, sore neck and a sore left shin.
"He’s in better shape this year," Lakers forward Metta World Peace said recently. "He’s in the best shape I’ve seen since I played with him. Even better than the run we had [in 2010]. He moves much better. He’s more fluid and has more lift when he’s shooting his turnararound. He’s able to do more physically this year. I like him and how he’s playing this year."
Of course, that's resulted in both the Lakers and Bryant leaning too heavily on his shooting with a 35% usage rate, his highest since the 2005-06 season.
Still, Bryant's seen his game blossom. He has drawn the most fouls while shooting since the 2006-07 season. He's gone on a six-game stretch this month where he's shot 52% from the field. Bryant went on a four-game tear in January when he scored at least 40 points, as well as a three-game stint in February when he dropped at least 30.
"I think all the special players in basketball, not many people talk about their will to win the game," Nuggets Coach George Karl said after spending part of Saturday's practice devising double-team schemes on Bryant. "Kobe at times can have bad games. Kobe at times can kind of be selfish. Kobe at times can be a little dysfunctional. But his will to win the game is pretty powerful. In the fourth quarter, he thinks he can overcome anything."
That includes a poor shooting percentage and apparently being too old.