How much do things really change for NBA players during the postseason?
For those of us reporting on -- or those of you following -- teams like the Lakers when the grind of the regular season turns to the chase for a championship, there are many obvious differences. Improved focus, fewer smiles and increased intensity show right through the faces and body movements of most players and coaches, on and off the court.
Need an example? Take a look at the embrace between Kobe Bryant and Steve Blake after Blake buried the dagger corner three that keyed L.A.'s 92-88 Game 4 win at Denver, as a furiously thrilled Pau Gasol comes in for a head pat.
But what does it actually feel like going through that shift? So very few know better than Bryant, four games into his 15th postseason campaign in 16 seasons, having already accumulated more playoff minutes than any player in league history (only a guy named Michael has more playoff points to his name).
What a luxury for the Lakers.
When Kobe was playing his first playoff minutes back in 1997, Lakers rookies Andrew Goudelock and Darius Morris were eight and six years old, respectively, watching on TV and dreaming big dreams. Long time head athletic trainer Gary Vitti -- as he reminded Morris and Goudelock before Game 4 -- has held his gig since before the rooks were born.
And here they are wearing that same purple and gold jersey as Kobe, trying to soak in his every word.
We sat down with each rookie to discuss what they've noticed in the locker room, on the practice court and the Friday before the Nuggets series began at BOA Steakhouse in Beverly Hills for the pre-playoff dinner, covering everything from Kobe's leadership, attitude and personality, the impact of the rest of the veterans and what those outside the team don't understand about Andrew Bynum:
MT: As a rookie, what did you expect to change heading into the playoffs, on a team full of guys with so much postseason experience?
Goudelock: Since I had never been here in the playoffs, I thought it would just be the same thing, every day after the next. But that's not it at all. Everybody is just more focused. Josh McRoberts actually had a talk with me to let me know that everything is going to be a lot different. He said there was no more fooling around, that it wasn't the time to do that. Everybody's going to be more stern and serious, and that the focus will go up with everything. And Kobe and Pau have been saying in front of the team for a while now that the real season starts in the playoffs, that everything changes ... and it has.
MT: What specifically have you noticed from Kobe?
Goudelock: Two weeks ago, Kobe started talking about what was at stake. And as the time approached, you could just tell how much more intense he and all the veterans were. Kobe's been more vocal with everybody. Telling people the game plan, where to be while in film sessions. Same with Pau and Drew. These guys definitely don't want to leave anything to chance, and I like the direction we're going in.
MT: What's been your impression of Kobe this season compared with what you thought he might be like before you got here?
Goudelock: The work ethic is definitely as impressive as you expected. Some people have said that he was a jerk and things like that, but I've been around him every day all year and he's definitely not one. He's a great guy. He has a different sense of humor, but he's great - I don't think people really understand. My perspective on him has changed a lot. And on the court, for example, Devin Ebanks hadn't played all season, and when he started playing*, nobody has been more vocal and supportive than Kobe. Telling Ebanks what he needs to do, preparing him for what's going to happen. When I was playing earlier in the season, he was always in my ear, and he continues to be.
*Ebanks started seven games when Bryant was out with a shin injury, and has been starting for Metta World Peace (suspension) since the final regular season game.
MT: That sounds like how his teammates described Bryant's style during LAL's back-to-back title seasons in 2009 and 2010, if maybe to an even greater or more positive degree?
Goudelock: He's just more of a leader than I think people that don't know him give him credit for. He's a great player, but he's also a great guy. You know the purple Beats by Dre that we all have...
MT: Yes, are you offering yours to me?
Goudelock: (Looks over with a "really?" face with eyebrows raised and a frown) ... That was all Kobe. He does things like that, when we'll come in the locker room and there's just stuff on our chairs. Or like the dinner we had the other night, he laid it all out for us.
MT: This being at BOA Steakhouse in Beverly Hills?
Goudelock: Yeah, and it was real cool. My first team dinner, which I understand is a playoff tradition around here. I just got the salmon, because I've been trying to watch what I eat. Guys call me "Cheeseburger" and stuff, so I'm watching it.
MT: That right? Well done, then. But how much was business, and how much pleasure?
Goudelock: Everybody was just mingling and talking at first, and then Kobe came in and raised a toast. He proceeded to talk about what was at stake, the tradition of being in the playoffs and what changes. He spoke to us for about 10 minutes in front of everybody, and then we all had a great meal.
MT: As a rookie coming onto a team with a lot on the line in terms of legacy, what's it like playing with a guy you already know is one of the best to ever play the game?
Goudelock: I know Kobe's a top five player of all time ... so it can be weird when you put it in perspective that this dude has done damn near everything that anybody dreams about doing in the basketball world, and think about all that he's done. I think about when he had the Afro back in the day sometimes, but at the end of the day he's a basketball player like me. We're all just kids that want to play basketball, so I try not to think about the history of it on a day to day basis, and just compete with him.
MT: How have Bryant and the rest of the veterans filled the leadership void left when Derek Fisher was traded?
Goudelock: Kobe has definitely spoken up more, but it's been a collective effort from everybody. Pau is speaking up, and so are Metta (World Peace) and Matt (Barnes). They do what they need to do to keep us together.
MT: It's been an interesting season for Bynum, both on the court and off, with his at times brilliant play and then a few incidents -- like the Golden State road game -- that have received a great deal of attention. But I get the impression there haven't been issues between Bynum and his teammates?
Goudelock: Oh not at all, man. People don't really know 'Drew. They don't really understand what he goes through, because he definitely doesn't act any type of way towards us. He's a great guy, a team player; everybody has problems they deal with in their own way, but one thing that's funny for me is that he and I are almost the same age. I'm 23, about to be 24, like he is, and he's been in the league for seven years. He gives me so many helpful pointers, and is the first person to encourage anybody on the team. He's an All-Star now and has been around, but he'll always say stuff like, 'Hey 'Lock, I see you hit the floater! I see you drop those threes!' You might think that an All-Star would be more to himself, but that's not him. He's real cool. I get mad sometimes because people say stuff about him without knowing what he's really like and how he acts towards us.
MT: An example of something Bynum will do along those lines?
Goudelock: He'll bring food for the entire team on the plane ... and I'm talking about really good, expensive food like sushi. He just looks out for us. Being around all these guys, we're a close group, so when we hear someone talking it's like someone talking about your brother. And you say, 'Man you don't know, it's all good.' I wish people could see what we see on a day-to-day basis with 'Drew and Kobe especially. And then Metta ... he was the first person to come and talk to me when nobody else was at the start of camp. The first one. People make judgments about him, but aside from Pau, he's probably the nicest guy on the team.
MT: What has stood out to you from the shift to the regular season to the playoffs?
Morris: Definitely intensity, focus and overall mindset of the team has changed. You can tell how the guys carry themselves around at shootarounds, just with the knowledge that if you don't win a series you go home. Kobe leads the way - his focus level has been extremely high, not only for himself but in terms of communicating with players. He's already watched film before we start, so he knows what plays are going to come during walk through, and that leadership trickles down to everybody else. There's definitely a seriousness, no more joking around; you just save it to the end of practice. Everybody has to be on board whether you're in the rotation or not, because there's always a chance you need to contribute.
MT: What was the emphasis of Kobe's message at the season-ending, playoff-beginning dinner at BOA?
Morris: It was just that the season was cool, we overcame a lot, but our real job starts now, and that's trying to win a ring. So let this dinner be our last moments of fun being out and about, but we're all about to lock in after this. Just recognize what we have to do as a squad. And for us rookies, they're letting us know that previous championships weren't by luck or by chance. They come with a certain mindset. That's one of the advantages of being a Laker, where I get to learn that playoff/championship mindset from guys that have done it more than anybody. It's a mindset that has been developed and works. Kobe's been through so much in his career, from winning championships alongside Shaq and then as the primary guy (in 2009 and 2010), so he can understand multiple aspects and relate to more of us. He's more versatile as a leader.
MT: For an L.A. kid like yourself that's known of Kobe for years, what's he like compared to what you thought he would be?
Morris: I didn't really have any expectations; I thought he'd be cool, and sure enough he is - on and off the court. It has been said in the past that he doesn't care about his teammates, but I've found it to be the total opposite. He cares the most. Even for guys that aren't playing he'll still talk to and give advice to; it's not all about him. I just think he's a great teammate, more importantly than a great player. When I think about it, my watching him while I was growing up, I can definitely tell that he's matured. I'd used to see him get emotional after calls and things, but now the way he carries himself and interacts with his teammates is ultimate maturity.
MT: How would you describe Andrew Bynum as a teammate:
Morris: I can honestly say that he's totally down to earth and cool with everybody. I'm not sure how Bynum might feel about the media, or if things were said about him when he wasn't healthy and playing well that gave him (hesitation), but it's all good with his teammates. So if we see something in public or on the court, we know it's not really like him - or something is really bothering him to make him act that way. I know he's not trying to hurt his teammates, but maybe getting his point across. And even Kobe said he could relate to that when he was younger, following his emotions in different ways as he learned.
MT: What stands out to you about your veteran teammates leading into the playoffs?
Morris: There's a resolve about these veterans. No matter what's going on outside, they find a way to block it out and still perform everyday for this team however the team needs them. They seem unbreakable, and everyone in their own way. For Kobe maybe it's having a really bad shooting night but coming right back the next night; for Bynum, it's getting benched and then responding well. For Pau it's responding really well after all the trade rumors before the deadline. It's just all resolve, teaching guys like me that no matter what's going on, just be ready to bounce back and get after it.