The fourth quarter is usually Kobe Bryant's time to shine, but midway through the final period against the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday Night, Bryant was benched by first-year Lakers coach Mike Brown, and L.A. lost the game 102-96.
When asked if he was unhappy after the game, Bryant was first hesitant to talk about the substitution, but he eventually decided to support his coach's decision.
It's his decision to make, Bryant said. He makes the decision. He's the coach. If you guys are looking for a story, I'm not going to give you one. I can't sit here and criticize his decisions. In leading this ballclub, that's something I can't afford to do. I got to have his back. I've had his back the whole season; I can't start doing something crazy now. It wouldn't make no sense.
The Lakers started the fourth quarter with a three-point deficit, but by midway through the fourth quarter, the Grizzlies' lead had ballooned to 14. Mike Brown called a time out, and Bryant walked to the bench and elbowed a chair in frustration. That chagrin only worsened when he didn't get back off the bench, and was replaced by Metta World Peace (nee Ron Artest).
I just felt like I needed to make a sub at the time, so I did, Coach Brown said. It's not one particular thing. I just made the sub, went with Metta, sat (Bryant) for a couple minutes and then tried to go back to him but obviously it didn't work.
With about 1:51 left to go in the game, the Lakers trailed by nine when the home crowd started to chant Ko-be! Ko-be! Brown subbed him back in, but it was too late. The game was already out of hand.
In all fairness to Brown, Bryant did play for most of the game, including the entire third quarter, where he scored 11 points on 4-for-4 shooting. His shooting spree helped the Lakers erase a 14-point deficit, spurring their own 15-0 run of their own.
I usually don't like to run him because he ends up playing a ton of minutes, Brown said. He was at 38 (minutes), 27 (seconds) tonight but I don't like to run him a whole half if I can help it. If I can give him a minute or two here or there, then I will.
Bryant admitted that he would have been tired if Brown kept him in the game.
Yeah, I would have been exhausted, Bryant said.
Bryant's teammates, including newcomer guard Ramon Sessions from the Cleveland Cavaliers, also stood behind Coach Brown.
It was just one of those things where I think (Bryant) played the whole third quarter and some of the fourth so coach was trying to get his legs under him and it happened to be towards the end of the game, Sessions said.
But even if the decision was made so Bryant could rest, Brown didn't tell Kobe that. In fact, he says that he doesn't plan to address this issue with his 14-time NBA All-Star any further.
I didn't discuss it with him and I probably won't, Brown said. I treat him the same as everybody most of the time. Obviously he's a superstar and when you have superstars you try to give them some leeway because they've been there and done that, but if I make a sub for somebody I don't feel like I always have to go and explain to them why I made a sub.
Even though Bryant was afraid to show his true feelings, he is likely irked by Brown's decision. Bryant is a veteran in this league and a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he knows that his pull on the Lakers is more powerful than Brown's. That's likely why he'll cut his coach a break, but don't expect Bryant to have Brown's back in the long run.
Coach Brown, who studied the game under Gregg Popovitch and helped LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers reach the NBA Finals in 2007, has excelled in this league as a coach, but he is no Phil Jackson. While Bryant is professional, it's obvious that he doesn't agree with the direction of his coach, and luckily both men give each other plenty of space. Kobe doesn't mess with Brown's coaching, and Brown doesn't mess with Bryant's playing. In fact, under Brown, Kobe has played more minutes than in previous seasons.
The difference is, Kobe continues to perform, while Brown does not. At 33, Bryant is averaging the second-most-points in the league today with 28.3 points to go along with 4.7 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game. He's putting up MVP-type numbers, and despite a talented supporting cast, his team is 30-19.
Unless the Lakers make a big playoff run, Coach Brown will be on the hot seat for some time. You can't bench Kobe Bryant and expect no consequences to come from it. Teams know it, coaches know it, players know it, and fans know it. Think of it this way: If Michael Jordan was benched in a close game under a first-year coach, whose side would the public take?