Somewhere between the dual hoops personalities of the Black Mamba and Kobe "Johnson" lies the true Kobe Bryant who will help propel the Los Angeles Lakers where they all want to go: deep into the NBA playoffs.
In three recent home games, all significant wins (Utah, Oklahoma City and New Orleans), Kobe shot less and passed more. The Lakers defense rose to the occasion, and that combination turned a disorganized, lackadaisical team into into a highly efficient, cohesive one.
The Lakers have won four of their last five games and would likely be 5-0 were it not for a late collapse in Phoenix on Wednesday after Dwight Howard was forced out of the game due to injury. For nearly seven minutes, Bryant the facilitator reverted to the Mamba, who tried to win the game by himself.
The loss in Phoenix was the Lakers' eighth consecutive on the road prior to them finally getting a win Friday night in Minnesota. Bryant was back to playing the role of facilitator and rebounder, and the Lakers held off another late charge this time to win going away, 111-100.
To illustrate just how effective Kobe has been in these five games since taking on a new role as a pass-first player, just look at the numbers and the results. L.A. has won four of five games as Bryant has reduced his shot attempts and increased his assist production.
The collapse in Phoenix points to the old Kobe and how ineffective that can be.
After Howard left the Suns game with just under seven minutes left, Kobe Bryant took seven of the Lakers' 10 shots, and the Lakers were outscored 19-8. That says a lot about how an inefficient, isolationist approach just doesn't work.
Consider this: The Lakers scored 32 points in the third quarter as they took a commanding lead, all while Kobe was dishing out four assists and playing quarterback.
In the final seven minutes, as Bryant tried to win it by himself, his teammates turned into spectators. Los Angeles scored just 13 in the fourth quarter. "We seemed to be kind of a step behind," Bryant said (via ESPN). "We seemed to be a little sloppy, a little lackadaisical."
Compare the Lakers' lousy finish Wednesday with their two-game commanding performance last weekend at Staples Center against Utah and Oklahoma City. Kobe had 28 total assists and shot an extremely efficient 15-of-22 with 18 rebounds.
Against the T-Wolves, Bryant was pretty efficient once again. Though he made just 4-of-13 shots, he also contributed with a Howard-like 12 rebounds and eight more assists. That gives Kobe 56 assists in his last five games.
Steve Nash was extremely productive against Minnesota and seemed to justify this experiment of being part of a two-man point guard situation. He hit on 6-of-9 shots, including all three from beyond the arc, on his way to 17 points. Nash also grabbed seven rebounds and had seven assists.
To his credit, Nash is doing whatever the coaches ask him to do because his goal is to win that elusive championship ring.
"He's just going to play basketball," said analyst Jeff Van Gundy (via Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times). "He's going to shoot if he's open and pass if he's covered and try to make the right play. Nash has a unique perspective. I think he's willing to do anything it takes to try to help them win."
After the Lakers played their best game of the year last Sunday in beating Oklahoma City, Nash was asked about the new look of the offense. He said (via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com):
This isn't necessarily any offense. This is bringing the ball down, calling over a pick and playing the game and because we have good players on the floor, when (Bryant) distributes we can make them pay for leaning too much to Kobe. When they lean too much to us, he makes them pay.
Kobe said he will continue to do what he thinks is best for the team. He talked about the team's closed-door meeting in Memphis (via T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times) and his subsequent decision to pass more and shoot less:
In the meeting we had in Memphis we were talking about doing things that maybe we're not what we do best. What I do best is shoot, maybe passing is the best way for us to win now.
I tried it in the seventh game of the  playoffs against Phoenix. I scored 50 in Game 6 and we lost. I scored like 17 in the first half, and took a gamble. I decided to pass to try and get everyone else going. It didn't work.
I took the same gamble here and if it hadn't worked out, what would people be saying now? Kobe isn't shooting so he can prove some point?
What I'm doing now is being selfish. I'm trying to help the team because I want to win a championship.
Some will argue with that assessment and accuse Kobe of being narcissistic and only about himself. At this late stage of his career, that argument no longer has much merit. Bryant wants another championship ring, and he'll do whatever it takes to accomplish that.
And despite the disappointing loss at Phoenix, Bryant has Nash in his corner as well.
In addition to being one of the greatest point guards ever, Nash is also one of the best shooters in NBA history. Now in his 17th season, Nash is a career 49.1 percent shooter for the field, including 42.8 percent from three-point territory.
In the meantime, fans can point to the Lakers' ageless wonder at the point and know that Bryant is making a big difference in the way the team approaches the game.
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