No One Saw It Coming: Kobe Bryant Saved Lakers… By Benching Himself
Game Recap: Lakers Swept By Raptors Despite Julius Randle’s Double-double
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015-2016 NBA season has been trying for Los Angeles Lakers fans, and this week has been no exception. The team is off to a 3-19 start and while Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour has been dripping with nostalgia, his play on the court has been a reminder that Father Time doesn’t lose. His errant shots and disappearing defense have resulted in Kobe having the lowest PER of his career by a wide margin and with him playing major minutes (30.9), the losses are piling up.

To make matters worse, head coach Byron Scott appears to be hell-bent on ripping away the one thing keeping Lakers supporters afloat — hope for a better future. Fans have largely settled into a “losing is fine, as long as the kids play” mentality, which is indicative of a knowledgeable fan base that understands the complexities of rebuilding.

Still, fans in Los Angeles (and worldwide) live and die with the Lakers, and the past few seasons of futility have left them emotionally exhausted. Losing Bryant to retirement after the season ends compounds things, as he has achieved demi-god status among the Laker faithful and has been the team’s security blanket for much of the past 20 years. He may not be the player he once was, but there is still hope within the bastion of Lakers fans that Bryant’s minutes and role could be reduced in order to preserve the aging star, which would also give the young players some room to spread their wings.

With Bryant’s efficiency issues, injury history, and the young players’ need for minutes, the Lakers seem primed for a “Kevin Garnett” scenario. The long-in-the-tooth Garnett is averaging just 16.1 minutes in Minnesota, so that the like of Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng, and Nemanja Bjelica can do the heavy lifting.

Byron Scott, however, had different ideas. Much to the chagrin of just about everyone following the Lakers this season, Scott decided that while change was indeed needed, it wouldn’t be Bryant’s minutes or role that shifted. Instead, Scott chose to do the unthinkable and removed D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle from the lineup.

Lakers Nation responded by doing a synchronized facepalm and then blasting the internet with a level of rage that even Bruce Banner would suggest is unhealthy.

It was frustrating enough that Kobe had carte blanche to fire at will, regardless of how many cringe-worthy airballs he hoisted, while the kids stood in the corner, attempting to learn through watching but not doing. Now the future of the franchise would actually see their precious minutes reduced, regardless of the fact that Russell was finally finding his rhythm or that Randle is leading all rookies and sophomores in rebounding. If there was a problem with the Lakers starting unit, it certainly wasn’t them.

It was change just for the sake of change, and did nothing to address the real problem of Bryant’s workload and efficiency. The cries for Scott to lose his job, which had been steadily growing since last season, reached a crescendo.

Lakers fans weren’t alone in their outrage, either.

Damning quotes came from within the organization, reportedly suggesting that Scott may not have complete faith from the Lakers despite their claims that his job is not in jeopardy. A disappointed Russell had this to say:

“ I was finally starting to figure it out and then this happened….I didn’t expect it to happen like that, so if I was the problem, or if I was the change that needed to happen to better the team, then I guess it was worth it.”

Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak chimed in with his own accurate assessment:

“I think our fans would understand if you’re actually developing young players and there’s some growth, and maybe that’s yet to come. But in the first 20 games, it’s tough to find consistent results to feel good about.”

Still, in spite of the backlash, Scott appeared set in his decision. For at least the next few weeks, Randle and Russell would have their wings clipped.

That is, until Kobe Bean Bryant did what no one else would. For nearly 20 years, Bryant has been coming to the Lakers rescue with clutch shots and Herculean performances, and during a Wednesday night game in Minnesota (against Garnett, no less) the old workhorse once again saved the day by doing the one thing that Scott refused to: he benched himself so that the young players could grow.

The game was tight in the third quarter, and Jordan Clarkson had been hobbled with an ankle injury. The Lakers needed someone to step up and carry them to the finish line, and all eyes shifted to Kobe, who was getting his customary rest in preparation for crunch time. Everyone knew that if the game was close when Bryant returned in the fourth, that it would be Kobe time, and he would attempt to take over the game.

On the court, however, the embattled Randle and Russell were sparking a Lakers rally. Randle was seemingly everywhere, grabbing rebounds and punishing Minnesota inside while Russell lit the Wolves up with eight points in the final two minutes of the quarter.

The fourth was a seesaw battle; the perfect opportunity for Bryant to step in and attempt to play the hero once more. The Target center crowd was chanting his name, the game was within reach, and the stage was set for Bryant to prove to the world that he had something left.

Fortunately, Kobe recognized that he doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone anymore. 20 years of incredible play speaks for itself:

“I’ve played 20 years, I’m not really trippin’ about minutes and things like that; doesn’t really matter to me.”

When the time came for Bryant to step on the floor and reclaim his throne, he instead turned to Scott and said, “Let them go.” Randle and Russell had brought the team this far, it was only right that they got the chance to finish it.

With Bryant’s blessing, Scott put the game in the hands of the Lakers youth, and they didn’t disappoint. At the end of the night, Russell and Randle had combined for 43 points, 13 rebounds and four assists.

Both made big time, clutch plays with the pressure on. Russell found himself isolated against the talented Andrew Wiggins with the game on the line, and managed to slip past him for a leaning basket in the lane that sent the game to overtime. Randle had a big moment of his own in OT, using a quick spin to leave Wiggins in his dust and get his team a much needed basket.

Through it all, Kobe was right there on the sidelines, encouraging his young teammates. When asked about his game-tying shot, Russell said, “Kobe was coaching me through it the whole time; he was just saying you’ve got that mid-range whenever you want it”

Randle had similar praise for Bryant’s sideline skills, even claiming that he would make a good coach someday (Kobe has steadfastly said he won’t coach).

Ultimately, the Lakers came up one point short, but the outcome was somewhat irrelevant. Years from now, no one will remember that Los Angeles lost a December game to Minnesota by one point, but the positive vibes the game created will still linger.

What matters is that the Lakers and their legion of fans were given reason to hope once again. The issues with Byron Scott won’t go away anytime soon, nor will Kobe’s battle against his rebelling body become any easier. The season will roll on, and there will be many more trials and tribulations for the rebuilding Lakers to overcome.

For one night though, the legion of purple and gold fans were treated to a glimpse of an exciting future, and it was made possible by Kobe Bryant declining the chance to play the hero, so that his teammates could step out of his shadow and into the spotlight.

We are indeed living in some strange times.

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