Tie score with T-minus five minutes — around these parts, that’s Kobe Bryant’s time. He’s been the proprietor of the ball under those circumstances for a while now. On Friday night, in said scenario, he was calling for it yet again.
But Jeremy Lin said no. The first-year Los Angeles Lakers point guard waved off the team’s volume-shooting star, drove right off a pick-and-roll and heaved a prayer-like 3-pointer with Chris Paul in his mug and the shot clock near expiration.
And the shot went in. And the Staples Center crowd erupted. And it looked like the player the Lakers — especially Bryant — had called out to be aggressive and assertive was finally being aggressive and assertive, especially with Bryant.
Bryant loved it. Even though the team lost, 118-111, Bryant was upbeat and raved about Lin, about that play and what it showed him about his new backcourt teammate who arrived in L.A. via a trade with the Houston Rockets.
“You have to be able to assert yourself, especially on a team that I’m playing on — especially on a team I’m playing on,” Bryant said with some added emphasis. “Because I don’t want chumps, I don’t want pushovers, and if you’re a chump and a pushover, I will run over you.
“It’s important for him to have that toughness and to say, ‘I believe in myself. I can step up, I can make these plays, I can perform.’ I think that is very, very important.”
Bryant, who scored 21 on 6-of-15 shooting from the field, has had players wave him off before. All the time, in fact.
“The teams that I’ve played on, the teams that won, we used to do that all the time,” he said.
But Lin? Bryant said he hadn’t seen that from Lin before. Bryant said he wasn’t even sure if Lin’s former teammates had told him to do that sort of thing before.
“It’s like,” Bryant said during his postgame news conference, then leaned forward and pounded his fist on the table, “you’ve got to put your mark down, man.”
“At some point, you’ve got to piss on the fire hydrant.”
With that line, which was a tad heavy in machismo and was punctuated by a few more fists pounded onto the table, Bryant left for the night.
But the implications were clear: Lin took a key step forward after subpar performances in the Lakers’ first two blowouts that led to him being dogged by Bryant and Lakers coach Byron Scott.
Specifically after a 20-point beating in Phoenix, Bryant and Scott said Lin played timid, uncertain, etc. They told him to take charge, run the offense and not be afraid. They empowered him.
Lin responded with 17 points, nine assists and several leader-like plays in what amounted to a night-and-day different performance from the Suns’ loss.
“I’m like every other human,” Lin said. “I’m going to be more comfortable, I’m going to do more, when I feel empowered.”
Scott was impressed.
“I liked what I saw,” he said.
“That’s exactly what he should do — is be the point guard and orchestrate things and get us into sets and get us flowing, get us moving, be aggressive,” Bryant said.
“This is the blueprint for him and how to continue to play.”
Bryant and Lin had a long chat after the Phoenix loss.
“I don’t think any of us really slept much,” Bryant said.
Text messages detailing X’s and O’s pinged back and forth between several Lakers.
“And then today before the game,” Bryant said, “we talked a little bit about making some adjustments and how we wanted to play and open up the floor.”
Then Lin captained an offense that did just that, whereas in previous contests the ball didn’t leave Bryant’s hands all that often — unless he was shooting it.
“We were trying to get everything moving, the ball popping, get it side to side,” Lin said. “We started trusting each other more and learning what that means. It’s not like we were ever like, ‘Hey, we don’t trust each other.’ We’re growing and we’re figuring out how to trust each other the best way.”
Said Jordan Hill: “Everybody gets to touch the ball now. The ball is moving a lot. Coach said, ‘If you see a shot that you like, take it.’ So that’s what we’re doing.”
Hill had a team-high 23 points and had the same number of shots as Bryant (15). Lin was right behind with 13 shots, Carlos Boozer had nine and Wesley Johnson had eight.
In other words, there was balance, which wasn’t there before, and which will almost certainly be necessary for the Lakers to be competitive on a nightly basis.
“We all knew there would be growing pains at some point,” Lin said. “Maybe they came a little earlier and a little tougher than we anticipated.”
The Lakers still tied their worst start since the team moved to L.A. (They were also 0-3 in three other seasons, including 2012-13).
But after consecutive blowouts, the Lakers considered it a moral victory.
“It felt really, really good,” Bryant said. “I couldn’t be more pleased in this loss, actually. I think we figured a lot of things out, a lot of things.”
When was the last time Bryant felt this good about a loss?
“Probably never,” Bryant said. “But we really played well. And it wasn’t like we played out of our minds. We executed really well. We did things that can be done consistently, if that makes any sense.”
Basically, baby steps.
Bryant is hard on his teammates, a high-risk, high-reward approach.
“Yeah, we’re all brothers,” Bryant said. “I think the most important lesson that I wanted to share with them is that we must challenge each other and bring the best out of each other. I think that’s important for them to understand that.”
But he has to teach more now, communicate more. His role has evolved.
“I’m just trying to show them,” Bryant said, “the DNA necessary to be a champion.”
The Lakers won’t be anywhere near the Larry O’Brien trophy this season, unless you count the ones in their El Segundo practice facility from previous championships.
Still, Lin has responded well to Bryant’s challenge, and it helped the Lakers nearly put a Halloween scare into their rivals, and that’s the best treat their fans could have asked for.