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Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul are more than spectators

The injured All-Stars give advice from the bench — plenty of it — and their teammates appreciate it.

February 06, 2014|By Ben Bolch
  • All-Star guards Kobe Bryant, left, of the Lakers and Chris Paul of the Clippers have been fixtures on the bench in street clothes.
All-Star guards Kobe Bryant, left, of the Lakers and Chris Paul of the Clippers… (Jonathan Daniel / Getty…)

Even in a dark suit with a blue shirt and matching pocket square, Kobe Bryant can be tough to stop in a game's final moments.

Cue the tape of the Lakers' game against the Chicago Bulls last month. There is Lakers swingman Nick Young late in overtime, swishing a fadeaway baseline jumper to tie the score.

Just like Bryant had drawn up.

"He pretty much told me what to do that play right there," Young said, recalling the basket that prompted a beaming Bryant to repeatedly point at Young as he came back down the court. "That's why he was smiling at me, like, 'It worked.'"

Blake Griffin knows what it's like to receive encouragement from a sidelined superstar.

Before every game, the Clippers forward hears five words that resonate for the next three hours: No one can guard you.

It's just a little pep talk from point guard Chris Paul, who like Bryant has been out more than a month because of injury but whose influence has remained very much in play.

"I just try to be there, be a voice if they need somebody to bounce things off of and tell them what I see," said Paul, who could return Sunday when the Clippers host the Philadelphia 76ers at Staples Center.

Paul and Bryant have spent more time this season as highly paid advisors than they would have liked. Paul has been out since Jan. 3 because of a separated right shoulder, missing 17 games. Bryant has missed 43 games — 19 while recovering from surgery to repair a torn Achilles' tendon and 24 after suffering a fracture in his left knee six games into his return.

One major difference between their experiences: The Clippers have largely thrived without their All-Star, going 11-6, while the Lakers (17-32) have sunk to near the bottom of the Western Conference standings without their all-time leading scorer.

Bryant is not expected to come back until after the All-Star break, meaning he will miss more games than he has in any other 82-game season; his previous low for games played in a full season was 65.

"He hasn't really been out for this long stretch in his entire career," Lakers forward Pau Gasol said, "but he's been helpful, he's been giving out tips to different players and just trying to stay involved and engaged."

Always fashionably outfitted in a suit or sport coat, Bryant prefers a spot at the end of the bench near reserve center Chris Kaman. He has been a slightly less visible presence than he was late last season, when he tweeted during a playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs and later intently listened during timeout huddles.

Now he's often lingering on the periphery, though teammates say his voice remains a constant. Forward Wesley Johnson said Bryant will outline opponents' tendencies and pass along tips on the best way to defend a certain player. He also has told new point guard Kendall Marshall how to get teammates open.

Bryant seems to get particularly animated any time Young makes a big play.

"He's been helping me all year," Young, now injured himself, said of Bryant, who has not spoken with reporters in a couple of weeks. "Trying to get us to have that fight, talking to me and telling me to just go out there and play hard. … Just hearing what he has to say is big to all of us."

It's the same with Paul, the Clippers' leading vocalist. He sits on the bench between assistant coach Kevin Eastman and a rotating set of teammates, always watching, usually talking.

"You can hear his voice throughout the game just like he's out there," Clippers center DeAndre Jordan said.

Paul spends more time talking to backup point guard Darren Collison than anyone because Paul knows him better than any other Clipper as a former teammate with the then-New Orleans Hornets.

"His voice goes a long way," Collison said. "You're talking about one of the greatest point guards in the world trying to help you out."

Paul has assumed a variety of roles, becoming head cheerleader when he rose from the bench and held three fingers aloft after teammate Jamal Crawford made a three-pointer at the end of a quarter against the Washington Wizards. Paul switched to quality control specialist Wednesday against the Miami Heat, pointing at Shane Battier after the Heat forward drifted out of bounds along the baseline, a play the referees missed.

Bryant and Paul have continued to travel with their teams while injured, each missing a handful of games to remain in Southern California and continue their rehabilitation programs. Bryant accompanied the Lakers for the seven-game Grammy trip but is sitting out their current trip because the team felt it was preferable to his enduring a stretch of three games in four nights.

Paul would have attained platinum status by now if he were awarded rewards points based on words spoken.

"Well, he talks more, if that's possible," Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said when asked what Paul was like on the road when not playing. "I mean, he was back in the coaches' section [of the plane] every trip and we were like, 'Go back in the front and play cards.'

"But you know what I love about him is he's really into it. Like, he's into the game. During the timeouts, you can hear him. A lot of guys just travel to travel. I thought he was very good on the road. I was impressed with that."

The view from the bench can yield some surprising observations, even for someone known for seeing plays before they develop.

"Now you really get a perspective of what it's like when you're playing and your coach tells you three people were open," Paul said. "Now I see all that, but it's a lot different when you're playing."

Paul said he has discovered something else important while sitting on the bench.

"Yeah," he said. "Don't get hurt."

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

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