MIAMI -- There was no late-night, solo shooting spree this time, as there was last March when Kobe Bryant's Lakers got humbled by the Heat. Instead, Bryant grinned through the postgame interviews, signed some shoes for a kid and strolled confidently -- and apparently, without concern -- out of American Airlines Arena and into the Florida night.
The bus was idling on the loading dock, ready to send the Lakers on their way to the next stop on this tour of insanity they're calling an NBA season. It's off to Orlando for the second night of a back-to-back Friday, but after that, what the Lakers' ultimate destination -- and how Bryant will be able to will them there -- is an open question.
Bryant's Lakers lost again to the Heat Thursday night, trailing by as many as 23 points on their way to a 98-87 loss that was a lot worse than that; a loss that was "hard to digest," Bryant said on his way out of the building. Earlier, he'd spoken about "experimenting on the fly" and the Lakers' new, decidedly un-triangle offense being "under construction."
"We're still working on the blueprints, actually," said Bryant, who was 1 for 8 in an ugly first half and finished with 24 points on 8-for-21 shooting.
On a night when Dwyane Wade remained sidelined with a sprained ankle, LeBron James controlled the game every minute he was on the floor with an eye-popping line of 31 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, four steals and three blocks. Those numbers didn't even begin to express the joy and aggression James displayed without his co-star; the Heat are 5-0 this season without Wade, and James has scored 30 points or more in all of them. James' rollicking night of fun and freedom also couldn't have provided a better juxtaposition for Bryant's struggles.
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It won't always be this way. A week ago, when Bryant's shots were falling and he was finding familiar spots on the floor in coach Mike Brown's system, he ripped off four straight 40-point games. This at age 33, in his 16th season, having surpassed 40,000 regular season minutes. On Thursday night, the dot-dot-dots at the end of the wire story said that Bryant had passed Bill Russell for 21st on the NBA's career list for minutes played. That's a lot of mileage on a body, even if that body has been to Germany and back for a miraculous, rejuvenating knee procedure. Even if that body is the most finely tuned one to play basketball in the world since Michael Jordan, and perhaps the last of its kind we'll ever see.
Bryant's recent scoring binge inspired writer Roland Lazenby, who is writing a book on Jordan, to tweet the other day something he'd gleaned from his conversations with His Airness: Forget LeBron and Wade and the rest. Bryant is the only player who has done the work, the only one who deserves to be compared to him.
"He knows my process," Bryant was saying on his way to the bus Thursday night, almost midnight in Miami. "He knows how I work. He knows how I train and how I approach the game. So it's a great compliment."
Bryant was not fishing for compliments on this night, and if he was, there wouldn't have been so much as a nibble. It was another humbling loss to the Heat -- his fifth in a row to a team with LeBron on it -- and another early season speed bump for the Lakers.
But it's different this time. This isn't Lamar Odom getting distracted, Pau Gasol failing to assert himself or Ron Artest (now, Metta World Peace) getting lost in the nuances of Phil Jackson's zen stylings and psychological warfare. This is a regular-season sprint with a new coach installing a new offense with structure and precision that was never required in the triangle. This is square peg meeting round hole.
"We're thinking the game and trying to make sure we're in the right spots and setting the right screen at the right time and we're reading the situation the right way," point guard Derek Fisher said. "And the game of basketball is a very instinctive, fluid game. And when you're thinking, you're not playing."
Bryant is playing, all right, to the tune of 38 minutes a night. He's also shooting at a high volume, something Jackson often decried. Bryant is averaging about four minutes per game more than he did last season and 25 field goal attempts per game, his most since the 2005-06 season.
"I'm not a worrier in that regard when it comes to him," Fisher said. "He's disciplined and focused in terms of his preparation and recovery and commitment. I think the condensed schedule with 38 minutes might be something that's different in that he hasn't had to respond to it. But 38 minutes in general over the course of the season is not something that makes me nervous with him. He finds a way to get it done."
Though his cheery disposition after the game was masking an inferno of discontent over another nationally televised loss to James, who was utterly dominant despite battling the flu, Bryant insists he isn't worried. And while Bryant alluded to needing to scrap some offensive tweaks that Brown had put in recently, he quickly moved to quell any notion that there are issues with his new coach.
"We'll be fine," Bryant said. "Coach Brown and I have a beyond great relationship. We talk all the time. All the time. So we're always on the same page."
Bryant's patience with these growing pains belies the fact that time is of the essence -- both for the Lakers in a shortened season with so few practices, and for the canvas he has been painting for 16 years. It is the fourth quarter of Bryant's career, no time to be "experimenting on the fly" and "trying different things." As great as he's been, he'll never forgive himself if a championship is left unfulfilled.
"We gotta trust the process," Bryant insisted out on the loading dock.
These are wise words he never would've uttered a few years ago. Words that come from experience, failure and those five championships -- still one shy of Jordan, the elder who has embraced the student.
"Strange," is how Bryant described the feeling, all this teaching of new tricks to the old dog in the fourth quarter of his career.
Then Bryant was asked if there would come a time to say "enough is enough" and do what needed to be done to get the Lakers pointed toward another title.
"That time will come," he said.