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Kobe has found his swagger

December 21, 2005, 1:01 pm

By Warren Blatt, Sports Network NBA Editor

(Sports Network) - Kobe Bryant is playing the way Los Angeles Lakers team owner Jerry Buss hoped he would when he decided to trade Shaquille O'Neal to Miami and to build his club around the 6-6 guard.

Bryant poured in a career-high 62 points during a 112-90 victory over the Dallas Mavericks at the Staples Center. With the victory, Los Angeles improved to 14-11 on the season. The Lakers, who re-hired head coach Phil Jackson in the offseason to try and help the team find their glory of the past, are trying to get back into the playoffs after they won just 34 games in 2004-05 and missed the postseason for the first time since the 1993-1994 campaign.

In the win over the Mavericks, Bryant played just under 33 minutes and was 18- of-31 from the field, including 10-of-22 from beyond. He was also an amazing 22-for-25 from the charity stripe and pulled down eight rebounds in the victory.

The seven-time All-Star is having an unbelievable season for LA. After 25 games, he leads the team in scoring (31.5 ppg) and is also averaging 5.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists per contest. Bryant is shooting over 45 percent from the field, 32.6 percent from three-point range and just under 82 percent from the foul line.

Lamar Odom plays the role Bryant use to when Shaq was playing for the Lakers. The 6-10 Odom is the second option behind his superstar teammate. Odom is not the dominate player that O'Neal was for LA, but he fits in well alongside Bryant.

The 26-year-old Odom, who was acquired from the Heat as part of the Shaq trade, is mobile, can score from all over the court and is an excellent passer. It's not a mystery that the Lakers are Kobe's team, and Odom understands it and has started to adjust to his role as Kobe's co-star, which is not only benefiting him and Bryant but also the team.

Bryant is playing with a chip on his shoulder this season. He did average 27.6 points, 5.9 rebounds and 6.0 assists in 66 games in 2004-05, but something was missing. The explosive guard was putting up the stats in the scoreboard but he did not have the swagger in his walk that seems to have returned.

Originally selected out of Lower Merion high school by the Charlotte Hornets in the first round (13th pick overall) of the 1996 NBA Draft, Bryant, who had his draft rights traded by the Hornets to the Lakers for Vlade Divac on July 11, 1996, has taken his squad on his back and is out to prove that he can be the No. 1 option on a winning team. His body language and all-around play signals a player who is confident and feels like there is no one in the league who can defend him.

In his first season without Shaq by his side, Bryant was feeling the pressure while he was also trying to mesh with his new teammates. He was out of sync and did not look comfortable with his surroundings.

What has changed this season?

The return of Jackson to the bench has helped big time. Jackson, who has won nine championship rings as a head coach, is a proven winner. His resume and mere presence get him the attention and immediate respect of his players.

Jackson, who guided the Chicago Bulls to six titles and the Lakers to three, knew coming in that if he wanted to help the Lakers return to the postseason he had to figure out how to get Bryant to return to his old form.

The challenge is a bit different this time around for Jackson, who does not have an All-Star center in the middle anymore. O'Neal won three titles with Bryant and Jackson during his time with the Lakers, but demanded a trade during the club's demise in the 2004 offseason. With O'Neal in Miami now and Bryant, who did not have the best relationship with Jackson in the past, as his main piece of the puzzle, Jackson has been able to get his team to play solid ball and convince the sometimes tough to deal with Bryant to come along for the ride.

Believe it or not, Bryant is playing team ball and has also been able to pick the spots when it is his time to take over a game. Jackson seems to be allowing his superstar guard to do what he does best, play basketball.

With Jackson calling the shots from the bench and Bryant leading the way on the court, the Lakers are starting to look like a club that could be ready to re-enter the world of the NBA playoffs.

It's still early, but watch Bryant play. His swagger is back, and that's good new for the Lakers and bad news for the rest of the NBA.