Kobe Keeps Shooting, Scoring
Near the end of last Sunday's 111-98 win at Philadelphia, Kobe Bryant walked off the floor to a standing ovation with a wave to the faithful who'd seen him score at will yet again, in his 17th NBA season.
With 31 points in that one and 30 more against Charlotte in L.A.'s narrow win on Tuesday, Bryant had hit the 30+ mark for the seventh consecutive game, becoming the only player in NBA history to do so in that many games at the age of at least 34. After beating the Bobcats – L.A.'s third straight win – Bryant told me that he's "hoping this Benjamin Button thing doesn't wear off."
His words are fitting, as only two other players in league history had ever scored 30+ in five straight games at that age, let alone seven. Those Hall of Famers are two of the four left ahead of Bryant on the all-time scoring list: Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whom he joined at the 30,000 career mark in New Orleans on Dec. 5.
So, yes, the guy knows how to, has the talent and the mindset to, score more than almost anybody. Even at this age, his 29.5 per game average leads second-place Carmelo Anthony by 1.6 points. It's the most Bryant has scored since 2006-07 (31.6 ppg), but what stands out about this season is he's doing it an all-time best 47.7 percent from the field. His previous high came back in 2001-02, when he hit 46.9 percent of his shots, many more of them layups and dunks at the rim thanks to his young legs.
The Lakers haven't always been at their best when Kobe's scoring at this level -- perhaps because they lack a true facilitator with Steve Nash out out injured and thus needed Bryant's playmaking -- but what he's doing has been impressive nonetheless. According to hoopdata.com, Bryant is shooting 70.5 percent at the rim this season, making 3.4 of 4.9 attempts per game. This is up from 66.2 percent on 2.3 of 3.5 attempts in 2011-12. When his legs were actually young, in that 2001-02 season, Bryant took 6.4 shots per game at the rim, making 4.1 for a conversion rate of 63.4 percent.
In short, he's getting to the rim just over one more time per game than he did last season, and converting a better percentage than at any point in his career.
"My wind feels even better now," Bryant explained after the win in his hometown. "I feel like I could run all day long. A lot of that has to do with diet and being committed to it. In Philly, I didn’t even have a cheesesteak. When I eat poorly, I can feel it. You feel heavy and sluggish. I just can’t do it."
This from a guy who used to eat McDonalds on game day in his first several seasons in the NBA. Eventually, he had to change his eating habits; but even while eating healthy and getting constant treatment last season, Bryant made only 43 percent of his shots in what was often a congested half-court offense. He credits part of his improvement this season to the floor being spread under Mike D'Antoni's offense.
"It has to do with some of the talent I play with and also the system," he explained. "The floor is more spread so you see me attacking the rim a lot more, as opposed to always facing a zone where you have to wind up taking pull up jump shots. Now you get to the end of the clock and I can get all the way to the basket."
He's scoring with pull-up jumpers, triples, layups, floaters and even gliding baby hook shots.
"I really just try to make the play in front of me," he explained in Philly. "I try and let the defense dictate what happens. At the start of the game tonight, I had a couple lanes to the basket, but got the ball knocked away. But the lanes were there so I took them. Then they started closing the lanes and I kicked it. Then the defense was yo-yoing them a little bit and when the pull up jumpers going, then I got the midrange game. They can pick their poison but I’d definitely shoot it rather than pass it."
That Kobe would rather shoot than pass certainly isn't breaking news, but in L.A.'s current winning streak, Kobe has led the team with 20 assists.
Last season, Bryant hit over half of his shots in only 14 of 58 games. This season, he's already hit at least 50 percent in 13 of 26 games. Even with improved conditioning spurred on by the 2012 Olympics this past summer and his disciplined diet, he admitted to being surprised he's able to operate at his current level.
"I am," he allowed. "I am surprised I have the energy. I really don’t know where it’s coming from … that’s the part that keeps me on edge all the time – doing ice baths in the hotel room, stretching, therapy around the clock, eating right – cause you want to keep that edge and wonder if it’s going to come."