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Scott Howard-Cooper

Kobe Bryant, who picked up his 17th career triple-double, must be feeling fine.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Kobe's unexpected fast start squelches early Lakers doubts

Posted Nov 4 2010 8:03PM - Updated Nov 5 2010 7:43AM

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- On an early November night that shouldn't have meant anything real to the Lakers, just another win in the young season inside crackling Arco Arena, Wednesday meant something.

Kobe Bryant bleeping proved it.

Everyone felt it.

Phil Jackson said it.

Bryant registered a 30-point, 12-assist, 10-rebound triple-double and played 36 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back during the 112-100 victory over the Kings, which would have been noteworthy enough for a 32 year old coming off knee surgery and expecting to ramp into the season. But then Jackson, hardly the type to heap false praise, said the Bryant recovery is ahead of schedule and that the point man in the three-peat bid is playing better than his coach had expected, and that was the real perspective.

"I think he's above schedule, at least for what I had," Jackson said. "I think he's playing better than I thought he could possibly play at this time of the year."

Bryant defying -- and daring -- the skeptics is nothing new. But this is the guy who knows his game as well as anyone. Jackson often sat Bryant during workouts early in camp and understandably planned to ease him into the regular season. Kobe had the surgery, Andrew Bynum would be out until sometime around Thanksgiving because of his own offseason knee operation, a trip to Europe for two exhibition games chopped up October preparations, so they knew early struggles were a possibility.

And then they get this: the Lakers are 5-0 and Bryant is making major gains since opening night.

By the time they left Arco, the wins had come against the 0-4 Rockets, the 1-3 Suns, the 3-1 Warriors, the 2-3 Grizzlies and the 3-2 Kings, with Memphis and Sacramento the only back-to-back, all reasonable considerations. But this is the Lakers close to unchallenged in what was supposed to be a susceptible time. In potentially the worst of times, they have often been impressive and never lower on the bar than efficient.

And now Kobe is Kobe again, or basically Kobe again, or Close Enough To Kobe again. The exact semantics and timing are up for argument, mostly between Jackson and the scoffing Bryant. But, in the only estimate that really matters, there is no debate that Bryant has made major strides just since the Oct. 26 opener, let alone compared to three weeks ago.

"His shot's on, he's got leg strength," Jackson said. "I still want to see him run freely and, I keep saying it, defensively moving with the kind of quickness that we like to see him and anticipation. But he played a great game [Wednesday].... It's just a matter of building up the strength and getting the condition a season requires."

Said Derek Fisher, Bryant's long-time backcourt running mate: "I knew that he was aware of where he was, whatever everybody else's opinion was and the comments that were being made. I felt confident he knew that he would be ready to play to start the season, although I personally felt like he might start off struggling to find some rhythm and then he would build the rhythm as things went. But to see him playing this well this early -- he's on my team, so it's good for me. But that's not good for everybody else, when he's playing this good this early."

Bryant's version of building the rhythm is needing all of 32 minutes a game to average 25 points, 6.8 rebounds and five assists while shooting 45.6 percent. Wednesday, it was the additional confirmation of the triple-double, the touch from the perimeter, the 12 assists against one turnover and the big minutes. Next, it's getting the additional boost of no back-to-backs for two weeks as part of a stretch of 10 games in 22 days.

"Better," Bryant said of his progress. "I feel fine. Feel normal."

Oh. Kay. Kobe hates. Talking about his injuries. Must deny concerns.

"I just feel better," he said when asked to expand on the improvements. "I feel fine. That's all I can say."

But the triple-double. Does that settle it that you are 100 percent?

"I don't give a [bleep] whether it settles it or not," Bryant responded, slapping aside the supporting evidence. "I'm a hundred percent. It is what it is."

It is, then, an impressive start that surpassed his coach's expectations and helped turn away potential early Lakers issues. That means something. Just like Wednesday.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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