By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com
SAN ANTONIO — There aren’t many NBA players who can walk out of the arena with their heads held high when their man outscores them 30-5. For Bruce Bowen that counted as a quality day at the office Sunday. Sure, Kobe Bryant got 30 on him. But only one of those points came from the free-throw line, it took 23 field goal attempts for Kobe to get there, none of Bryant’s teammates had a big night, and the Spurs won.
“People will look at me like, ‘Yeah, Kobe killed you,'” Bowen said. “That’s part of the game. He’s the MVP. Michael Jordan did it to me early in the league, and look at him. Whatcha gonna do?
“My thing is just not putting him on the free-throw line. That’s what I don’t want to do …. He’s good, but you don’t want to give him everything.”
In the previous series against Utah, Bryant feasted at the free-throw line, taking 96 attempts in six games. Now the free throws are as hard to come by as food on an airplane these days: six in three games versus the Spurs.
Bowen’s thinking is that fewer free throws means more field goal attempts for Bryant. “If he’s taking all those attempts, then others aren’t getting involved,” Bowen said. “Now, some of those guys can’t operate on seven shots, especially when they only hit two of them. Now it becomes more difficult, now they get it, it’s like ‘I’ve gotta hit this.'”
Think of it as Bowen’s version of help defense, even though he has to stay on his man. The better play by the supporting cast this season makes Bowen’s job harder, because his teammates aren’t free to come double-team Bryant. No complaints from Bowen. Just another night of work.
Yes, you can count Bryant among the Lakers’ collection of international players that also includes Sasha Vujacic from Slovenia, Pau Gasol from Spain, Vladimir Radmanovic from Serbia and Montenegro, DJ Mbenga from the Congo and Ronny Turiaf from France.
From age 6 to age 13, Bryant lived in Italy while his father played professional basketball in Europe.
Bill Russell once said of Bryant, “I came to the conclusion he’s a foreign player. You can’t talk to him like he’s from L.A. Because if you do, you’re going to have difficulty.”
Maybe that explains why Bryant is more integrated with this team than with any other Lakers squad in his 12 seasons in L.A. Not only was he a teenager among grown men when he came into the league as an 18-year-old, he also was a cultural outsider on a roster made entirely of Americans. Bryant’s curiosity and hunger for knowledge are just as insatiable as his desire to be the best basketball player ever to lace ’em up, and foreign players have something to offer Bryant: new words, new customs and new information. Bryant likes to speak to them in their native languages, showing an ever-increasing vocabulary. It’s as if he’s adding a new move to his repertoire.
“What we have is a collection of players that come from all over the place; everybody wants to learn about the culture, the language,” Bryant said. “It makes things more fun in the locker room.”
It’s a little counterintuitive. More people from different backgrounds improving unity? Well, that’s the way it’s working.
“Every guy is bringing something different,” Radmanovic said. “Once you put it all together, you get a nice atmosphere and guys just enjoying being around each other. Once you have that, that’s one of the biggest and most important parts of playing well.
“You can have the 10 best players in the world on the floor, but if they don’t get along with each other, I don’t think it’s going to work out. What we have right now, it’s beautiful.”