INDIANAPOLIS — Kobe Bryant stood at the opposite end of the floor when his teammates were shooting free-throws on Monday night. With his heels a few feet away from the baseline, he would either pace back and forth and clinch his fists, or bend at the waist and place a palm on each knee.
When he would look up from the floor, he saw a lopsided scoreboard and a Los Angeles Lakers (8-17) team of his creation. A creation that the Indiana Pacers (8-17) dismantled piece by piece in the first half on their way to a dominating 110-91 victory. The win snapped Indiana’s longest losing streak (eight games) in five years.
The Pacers posted new season-highs in the first quarter, scoring 34 points and suffocating the Lakers into 15 percent shooting from the field (3-of-20). Shot after shot from Los Angeles clanked off the iron. At halftime, the Lakers had missed 36 of their 43 attempts and were down 60-27.
Indiana was able to stretch their lead to 39.
“No, I don’t think so,” Bryant said when asked if he had ever been down by that much in a first half.
The Pacers’ defense was able to frustrate Bryant for much of the night, as his constant bickering with the officials will attest to. He was the game’s leading scorer with 21, but it took him 26 shots to accomplish the feat and he reached the free-throw line just three times. All of this came roughly 24 hours after Bryant passed Michael Jordan for 3rd all-time in career scoring.
“Limiting him in the first half to zero free-throw attempts was the biggest thing,” said Solomon Hill, the Pacer who was assigned to defend Bryant for much of the night. “If you keep a scorer like that off the free-throw line, it changes the game.”
The Pacers were once again led by newcomers Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles. Stuckey was three assists away from what would’ve been his first career triple-double (20 points, 10 rebounds), something he didn’t even realize he was close to. Miles added 20 points of his own off the bench. Indiana’s reserves combined for 52 points — the first time this season the Pacers have won when the bench scores 50 or more points (1-5).
Stuckey’s pace and strength in transition earned him 10 trips to free-throw line, where he connected on eight of them. It was the type of assertiveness on offense that head coach Frank Vogel wanted to see out of his group.
“We knew they played last night and they’re not a great defensive team, so we wanted to make sure we played aggressive offensive basketball,” Vogel said.
Indiana scored 16 points in transition and forced the Lakers to beat them in the half-court. They took advantage of the Lakers’ tired legs, something Bryant pointed to afterwards.
“We didn’t have our legs the entire ballgame,” Bryant said. “Our transition defense is a big Achilles heel for us. We gave them 16 transition points and this is not a team that typically gets out on the break.”
Even through the Pacers’ constant barrage on the rim and the Lakers flirting with franchise-low records on the offensive end, the center of attention was Bryant. Waves of purple and gold No. 24 jerseys and memorabilia filled the seats of Bankers Life Fieldhouse. With every Bryant make, the boisterous faithful watching their hero on the final stage of his career let him know they were there.
Although the Lakers were able to score 64 points in the second half and make the score look a tad more respectable, Bryant never re-entered the game in the 4th quarter. “We want Kobe!” chants reverberated inside the arena midway through the final period. It was difficult to tell if they were from the fans wearing Lakers colors, Pacers supporters, or both.
Bryant, even on the last ounce of his basketball ability, no matter how low in the standings the Lakers sit, carries that polarizing power with him to every arena. There’s little middle ground when it comes to Bryant and that was evident on Monday. He’s either this generation’s Michael Jordan to some, or selfish chucker who no one wants to play with. Either way, Bryant took Monday’s spotlight from the Pacers by just showing up.
In the 3rd quarter, he chased after a pass he deflected, ultimately crashing into the scorers’ table, unable to save the ball from going out of bounds.
“If this was 15 years ago, I would’ve got that s—,” Bryant thought to himself after the play.
Bryant admitted that he’s had little time to think about passing Jordan the night before in Minnesota. The rest of the basketball world likely feels the same. It seems like most are along for the ride — the final one.
However, he was able to pen a piece on the feat for The Players’ Tribune earlier in the day, which took him “about 30 minutes on the plane.”
Bryant writes: “I’m aware of Father Time’s curfew. He has sent me to my room to brush my teeth before he tucks me in, but I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t walk to the bathroom slowly. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t act as if someone misplaced the toothpaste. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t brush every tooth twice, brush my tongue three times, floss until my gums bleed and rinse with mouthwash until the inside of my mouth burns and then goes numb.”
Kobe desperately wanted to avoid that bathroom again on Monday, even if the Pacers’ defense turned on the light switch, illuminating its entrance.