Toronto Raptors v Los Angeles Lakers

Kobe is back but loss to Raptors shows Lakers still have a lot of work to do


LOS ANGELES — Kobe passed the first challenge he has set before himself.

Eight months of never-ending therapy sessions and workouts to return to the court paid off — Kobe is back. He was introduced with Darth Vader’s theme music and Staples Center was buzzing like it was a playoff game. Kobe was on the court with the ball in his hands, particularly in the fourth quarter. It was what the Lakers nation had been waiting to see.

But what they saw wasn’t pretty.

“Right now my form is a horse s— form,” Bryant said bluntly after the game.

Fixing that and getting in sync with his teammates is the next challenge Kobe has to set his mind to.

Kobe said physically he felt right, but he looked understandably very rusty — like a guy who hadn’t played in an NBA game for eight months after Achilles surgery at age 35. Kobe was 2-of-9 shooting with eight turnovers. He led a group Lakers starters that shot 25 percent — not one of them scored in double digits.

Which is why the Lakers fell to the Raptors 106-94 to spoil Kobe’s much anticipated return.

This kind of rough start had to be expected (at least by anyone not seeing the world through purple and gold glasses). Not only was Kobe bound to be rusty but also the Lakers were going from a team where the ball was often in Steve Blake’s hands to one where Kobe controlled the flow of the offense.

“I felt good that I was able to get into the lane…” Kobe said after the loss. “I felt like I could penetrate and turn the corner, which was a big question mark for me. And then once I got in there I didn’t make the proper reads most of the time, but the fact of the matter I was able to get in there. The reads you can improve, the explosiveness you can’t.”

The other Lakers players (particularly the starters) were simply hesitant and guys were passive when Kobe was on the court. It wasn’t so much guys were just watching him (as has been an issue in the past) as much as just the movements in the offense were out of sync.

“We’re all trying to get used to playing with one another,” Lakers starting center Robert Sacre said. “It’s definitely been growing pains. I think we can handle it, nothing we haven’t seen before…

“I think it’s going to take a couple of games and unfortunately it’s not some easy games we’ve got coming down the pipe.”

The Lakers may not have a few games (they play the Suns Tuesday night followed by a four game road trip which includes Oklahoma City). In the deep Western Conference the 10-10 Lakers are the 10 seed and 1.5 games out of the playoffs. While it’s early and that’s not much, they can’t dig a much deeper hole if they plan to climb out of it and make the postseason because other teams are going to step over them. There is little forgiveness for slumps in the West.

Kobe showed some moments where he looked like his old self. For example his first bucket came with a pump fake lefty 10-foot bank with 5:07 left in second that was vintage. Late in the second quarter he used his jab step to create space for an 18-footer he nailed.

But mostly early we saw facilitator Kobe — and that is where the rust and lack of having played with guys through training camp and 19 games to start the season showed. Kobe was turning the ball over, clearly just not used yet to the speed of the NBA game and where the lanes to make passes would appear.

“He was as good as he can be, it’s going to take a while,” coach Mike D’Antoni said, repeating the mantra you heard from anyone in the Lakers locker room. “There’s no way he could do that, I know everybody thought he could but no way he could be out eight months, have no training camp, and come out and be in mid-season form.

“We knew that, which is why we needed the other guys needed to step up around him and we didn’t do that.”

What the Lakers did do was hide Kobe Bryant on defense — he guarded Landry Fields to start and later Steve Novak. He got switched onto DeMar DeRozan a few times and while he got an early steal that way generally that was a good matchup for the Raptors.

There were a lot of good matchups for the Raptors, particularly anyone in white trying to cover Amir Johnson who led Toronto with 32 points on 14-of-17 shooting. Toronto got 60 points in the paint with Johnson muscling his way in and DeRozan slashing his way (26 points). Without Rudy Gay (traded earlier in the day) Toronto moved the ball well and the Lakers had no good answers on that end.

Kobe knows the Lakers need to turn this around quickly. And planning to do his part of that in the most Kobe of ways.

“I couldn’t wait to start watching film and criticizing every little thing and I’ll go home tonight and watching over again, but that’s the exciting part,” Bryant said. “The exciting part is you got a challenge and you got some improvements to make and you sit and you watch them and you break it down and you get ready for the next game and carry it from there.”

It’s the next challenge and Kobe is ready for it. The fact that Kobe was back on the court just 240 days after having his Achilles torn is an accomplishment of a high magnitude. And some were able to really appreciate that.

“It’s my first time playing with Kobe, it’s something I can tell my son,” Shawne Williams said. “It was history to me.”

But Kobe is not one to dwell on history. He wants the next mountain to climb.

Mike Budenholzer smirks at lawyer calling Thabo Sefolosha ‘NBA superstar’

Mike Budenholzer, Thabo Sefolosha
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The funny part, via Robert Silverman:

The substantive part:

NEW YORK (AP) — NBA player Thabo Sefolosha, who was arrested outside a New York City nightclub in April following a confrontation with police officer, has a character “of the highest order,” his head coach, Mike Budenholzer, testified Thursday.

Taking the stand as the final defense witness in Sefolosha’s trial, Budenholzer described the Atlanta Hawks guard-forward as “highly intelligent” and a “hard worker.”

When asked by defense attorney Alex Spiro to describe his character, he said it was, “of the highest order.”

“Thabo is of the highest character,” he said during brief testimony in Manhattan Criminal Court.

The Swiss national is charged with misdemeanor obstructing government administration, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest charges stemming from a confrontation with officers outside a trendy Manhattan nightclub early in the morning on April 8. He has pleaded not guilty.

Officers testified this week that Sefolosha and former teammate Pero Antic repeatedly disobeyed their orders to move off the block and away from a crime scene that had been established following the earlier stabbing of another NBA player, Chris Copeland, and two women.

One of the officers also said Sefolosha lunged at an officer with his arm extended but was intercepted before making contact, eventually taken to the ground and arrested.

Sefolosha has testified that he was complying with orders and moving up the block as a particularly aggressive officer screamed profanities at him.

His attorney has argued that his client was singled out by the officer, who is white, because Sefolosha is black.

Sefolosha testified Thursday that he was trying to give money to a panhandler before entering an awaiting car when he was grabbed by police. He said his leg was kicked in the scuffle and he was taken to the ground, handcuffed and hauled to a police precinct. He suffered a fractured right leg, which forced him to miss the playoffs.

The case is the second one involving high-profile athletes accusing New York Police Department officers of wrongdoing this year. On Wednesday, the city agency charged with investigating police misconduct substantiated claims by former tennis star James Blake that an officer used excessive force when he took him to the ground last month after mistkaing Blake for a fraud suspect.

As expected, Jimmy Butler says no issue between him, Derrick Rose

Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler
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Is the Derrick Rose/Jimmy Butler relationship nothing but puppy dogs and rainbows? No. There will be sparks between two intense competitors.

Have those sparks started a fire Bulls fans should be concerned about? A report on Wednesday said the core problem was Butler doesn’t respect Rose’s work ethic, which provided some kindling for that spark to catch.

However, as you would expect, Butler said this was all much ado about nothing, that he and Rose are all good. Via K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

Spin this however you wish: Their relationship is fine and someone in the media is making this up; or their relationship has been rough, and this is all just leaking out now.

This is a Bulls team in a bit of a transition as Rose declines some and Butler has grown into a top-flight player. Clearly that dynamic has some people around the team — likely the people in one of one of the players’ camps doesn’t like the power struggle or where it leaves his buddy — talking out of school to the press.

But as Butler noted, winning cures all ills. If Chicago can get off to a fast start, nobody will be asking chemistry questions.

For now, however, tounges are wagging.