The Los Angeles Lakers, who are 16-21 and in 11th place in the Western Conference standings, are turning to their superstar Kobe Bryant with hopes he can provide a bigger defensive boost to their embattled defense.
Bryant was left off last year’s NBA All-Defensive first team for the first time since 2005. He took the defensive assignment against Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving Sunday and played locked-down defense on him. Irving entered Sunday’s contest averaging 23 points per game, but Bryant held him to just 15 points in the Lakers’ 113-93 victory.
The five-time NBA champion proved to Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni that he can defend his opponent’s best player, which has led D’Antoni to use him more actively on the defensive end.
“I think that really helped us,” D’Antoni said. “It helped us against the Clippers with Chris Paul. (Bryant) wants to take the challenge, and it really helps us.”
The Lakers have the fifth worse defense in the NBA, allowing 101.87 points per game. A large part of their defensive problems can be contributed to D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense.
The 34-year-old Bryant will use more energy on the defensive end, which could diminish his scoring. He is leading the NBA with 29.8 points per game.
The Lakers will need other players, such as Steve Nash, Metta World Peace and Dwight Howard, to step up on the offensive end. They will also need a significant contribution from their bench. They are ranked sixth in the NBA in offensive efficiency with 106.3 points per 100 possessions average, according to ESPN.com.
Nash relishes the opportunity to see Bryant take harder defensive assignments because he feels that adds another dimension to Bryant’s’ game.
“Kobe’s a guy that likes a challenge, so to give him a challenge I think sometimes is best for us,” Nash said. “Sometimes when he maybe is guarding someone who isn’t going to demand his interest, he can wane a little bit. But when we put him in a position where he’s challenged, he can be phenomenal.”
D’Antoni is unsure of how much Bryant’s playing time will decrease, but wants him to remain healthy as they make a push for a playoff berth with 45 games remaining. He is averaging 38.7 minutes per game this season, the most among guards.
“But he’s taking the challenge,” D’Antoni said. “I told him his minutes got to go down — they got to go down. He doesn’t love that, but he’s willing to do anything to make us win.”
Bryant will take on his next defensive duties against Brandon Jennings or Monta Ellis when the Lakers host the Milwaukee Bucks Tuesday night.