The downside of unselfishness

KEN FIDLIN

, Last Updated: 9:50 AM ET

All over the NBA, the "new" Kobe Bryant has been getting rave reviews. More mature. Less selfish. A team player.

"I think his mental makeup and his mental maturation are better," said Isiah Thomas recently. "He's matured in this league as a person and he's gotten tremendously better at leading and understanding his teammates.

"He appears to be more compassionate with his teammates as opposed to the domineering, dominating 'I'll beat you up' kind of person, which seems to be working with his teammates. They seem to be responding to that kind of leadership."

This is all good stuff from the guy a lot of smart people consider the most skilled player in the game. Surrounded by better players than the Lakers have had the past couple of seasons, Bryant, has sacrificed his own scoring numbers to let the other Lakers in on some of the glory. Like we said: Good stuff.

"Once I get on a roll and see the double- and triple-team, I'm able to use myself as a decoy," Bryant says.

But there are times, and last night was probably one of them, when the old Kobe -- the guy who last year buried an inferior Raptors team under an 81-point avalanche -- might have been what the Lakers needed. This was a game in which the Raptors might have been vulnerable, in that they did not shoot the basketball well early on, but the Lakers could not take advantage, losing 96-92.

In the fourth quarter, which so often has been Bryant's domain, the entire Lakers organization went into cardiac arrest when Kobe went down, clutching his left ankle. He stayed in the game, scored 10 of his 25 points in the last quarter and the Lakers did overcome a 12-point deficit. But it was not going to be one of those patented Kobe finishes.

The Raptors weren't going to be denied their fifth consecutive victory. L.A. fought back, but when Bryant's dunk with two minutes left gave the visitors a two-point lead, Mo Peterson came right back down the floor and restored the Toronto lead for good at 93-92. With Kobe under blanket coverage, the Lakers didn't score again.

Before the game, Toronto coach Sam Mitchell seemed to have this kind of scenario in mind. He admires everything about what Bryant is doing for his team, but knows also that when Kobe isn't carrying the offence, the Lakers are relying on lesser talents to get the job done. Other teams are trying to take advantage of Bryant's willingness to share.

"You can be a facilitator all you want," Mitchell said, "but if you keep passing and the guys on the other end receiving it aren't doing anything with it, then the best player has to try to force it."

That was essentially the way the Detroit Pistons held Bryant to 18 points on Thursday night, smothering him with defence, forcing the other Lakers to win the game if they could. They couldn't. If it was good enough for the Pistons, it was good enough for the Raptors.

Led by Anthony Parker, they were inside Bryant's shirt all night long and, once again, the other Lakers weren't able to fill the gap on a night when the Raptors offence left them out on a limb.

"We got something from everybody on defence," said Parker. "Everybody on our team is conscious of Kobe and where he is on the floor. We were determined that (the other Lakers) were going to have to step up and beat us.

"We missed some shots, missed some free throws. Our offence wasn't what it needed to be."

Lakers coach Phil Jackson, naturally enough, was more concerned about his own club but is mildly impressed with the Raptors. Still he wants to see more.

"They're starting to make themselves proud of what they're doing," he said. "The next thing for them is to take it through the next two months down the stretch."

Nobody on the Raptors is much interested in looking that far ahead. They're having too much fun right here in the present.


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