Kobe changes game, goes from selfish to team player

LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant doesn't remember exactly when it happened, but he knows it did happen. There was a moment when these marquee head-to-head matchups ceased to excite him like they used to. When he began to understand that the game was bigger than him. When he finally discovered that his teammates could do more than simply pass him the ball.

"I think it happened over the summer," said Kobe Bryant as he prepared to walk out of the Staples Center following the Los Angeles Lakers' 124-118 overtime win over the Heat on Monday. "It just doesn't excite me anymore. I just don't get up for it. I get up for us playing well as a team and guys contributing. I really get off on that. I get off on (Brian) Cook having a big game and Smush (Parker) and Luke (Walton) and those guys. That's what excites me now. I've been there done that so that just doesn't get me up anymore."

While advertisements in newspapers, radio and television hyped up the nationally televised game as Kobe vs. Wade, Kobe Bryant tried to ignore the hoopla. A year ago he would have relished it. Such a game would have been the perfect stage for him to jack up enough shots to net him 50 or 60 points and a personal highlight reel that would be enough to overshadow the final score.

"I really don't play for that in this stage of my career," said Bryant, who has been outscored by Dwyane Wade 75-41 in two games this season. "If you watch me play now, I play more for my teammates and keeping them in a rhythm so that they stay in a rhythm. You know, I take shots when I need to, to put the game away or whatever but I just don't play for that anymore."

Kobe Bryant's transformation from Ko-Me to Kobe was never more evident than on Monday night when he dished out a team-high eight assists and was more than happy to feed Cook the ball as the third-year forward scored 25 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. As a team, the Los Angeles Lakers had seven players score in double figures and five players dish out four or more assists.

"It's part of becoming the leader of this ball club," said Kobe Bryant, who finished with 25 points. "Understanding what it takes to win games and accepting that as a challenge as opposed to saying that I want to be the best basketball player in the league and for people to understand that. It's not that about that. My focus has shifted to being a leader on this team."

Now, Kobe Bryant still loves to score. Make no mistake about that. He is the fourth-highest scorer in the NBA, averaging 28 points a game, and will still take countless ill-advised shots when he's triple teamed because he can -- and often does -- make them. The difference is that Bryant no longer feels the need to carry the scoring load game in and game out. Despite being without Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown for much of the season, the Lakers stat sheets have never been more balanced. The result? Having the fourth-best record in the league.

"I think it's helped elevate us as a team," said Kobe Bryant. "When my teammates know that I trust in them to perform well and I try to get the best performances out of them, I think it heightens their confidence when I continue to go to them and I continue to look for them on a nightly basis. It's helped elevate us as a ball club.

While Kobe Bryant still can't pinpoint exactly when he had his eureka moment as a leader, he does remember seeing the light flicker during the playoffs last season. Although the Lakers were eliminated by the Suns in the first round after holding a 3-1 series lead, it was during his first postseason run as the team's undisputed leader that Bryant first showed a glimpse of the player we would come to see this season.

"I think the playoffs were a turning point," said Bryant. "We understood that if we wanted to succeed we had to play well as a team and at that point we were ready to do that. Earlier in the year we just weren't ready to execute as a unit within the system so I had to shoulder the load in scoring but when we were ready to step up and contribute within our structure I just let go."