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Lakers vs. Nuggets: Kobe Bryant is Either in Playoff Mode or Mad at the World

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“Any other great questions?”

That’s how Kobe Bryant wrapped up his time with the media on Saturday afternoon. It was a fitting conclusion to a three-minute session in which he kept his responses short, inaudible, and peppered with just enough visible impatience to make folks wary about asking anything else.

Kobe is officially in Playoff Mode. Or he’s just mad at the world. It’s sort of tough to tell the difference.

Look, we all know this man is a competitor. In fact, we know he’s one of the fiercest competitors in NBA history. But let’s not pretend like he’s that Michael Jordan-esque, totally unreasonable type of competitor. We’ve never heard tales of Kobe getting angry over losing card games, or displaying any similarly brat-like behavior when a particular meaningless contest doesn’t go his way. He’s competitive like normal people are competitive, and then with a tablespoon of aggressiveness on top of that.

There is a difference between wanting to win so that you can say that you've won, and wanting to win for the sake of winning. Kobe falls into the former category, Jordan falls into the latter. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s certainly not a slight against the Black Mamba. It’s actually what makes him the stand out as such a remarkably intelligent, understanding player. He really does manage to balance desire, competiveness and perspective better than anyone who has ever been as historically brilliant a basketball player as he has been. We don’t need more guys in this world who call out their kids in their Hall of Fame induction speeches because they’re so annoyingly, unreasonably competitive with the world. We need guys with enough common sense to sacrifice a worthless, hollow scoring title for the sake of resting up before a championship run.

Kobe is a methodical, thoughtful assassin. He always has been. He has never been as physically gifted or passion-driven as Jordan. Rather, he’s gotten to where he’s gotten in basketball lore based entirely on his combination of talent, coolness and acumen.

But the fact that we know Kobe is much more well-balanced than Jordan is what makes his random attitude swings all the weirder. Yes, he has to shift gears mentally before each postseason – but for some reason that so-called Playoff Mode looks really different every single time.

Was Kobe in Playoff Mode during Game 7 of the Lakers’ 2006 series versus the Phoenix Suns, when he exasperatedly stopped shooting in the second half of that blowout “to get others involved”?  Was he in Playoff Mode when, after Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals, he bizarrely joked that the Lakers had wet the bed versus the Boston Celtics following a particularly hard-to-swallow defeat? What about in the second round of last year’s horrific collapse versus the Dallas Mavericks when, after being down 1-0, then 2-0, and then 3-0, he optimistically promised that the Lakers would come back. Was that Playoff Mode Kobe?

Maybe it was, depending on your definition of the term; however, you can’t argue that his temperament was different in each case. Simply writing off him being sullen and unresponsive before a game to him being in Playoff Mode seems a little too easy.

Prior to him closing out Saturday’s media session with the mildly hostile rhetorical question noted above, a reporter asked Kobe about his shooting percentage this season being the lowest since his second year in the NBA. The reporter even tried to soften the question up by giving him several bailouts – minutes played, shortened schedule, etc. Clearly that didn’t lessen the blow in Kobe’s mind, though.

What did he attribute his noticeably lower shooting percentage to?

“Old age.”

So, as a follow-up, the reporter asked whether Kobe was too old to win a championship.

“Of course.”

And then came the “Any other great questions?” bit that closed up shop for the day.

Wondering why Kobe’s shooting percentage was so low this year certainly isn’t stupid. Kobe may have wanted to play it off like it was, but it was actually a very reasonable, solid question.

This year, after his freakishly effective German procedures, Kobe looked as healthy (to start the year) as we’ve seen him look in a long time. Sure, a busted nose, messed up shin, hurt wrist and countless other things hindered him as the season progressed, but none of them actually stopped him from launching up his second most shot attempts per game since 2002-03. A feat that’s all the more interesting given the fact that, between a developed Andrew Bynum and an always-reliable Pau Gasol, he has more help now than he has at any point since his championship runs with Shaq.

Part of the reason for the increased shooting totals can be attributed to him playing nearly five more minutes per game this year than he did last year. So, again, asking Kobe why his shooting percentage was noticeably lower this year wasn’t stupid. And giving him the minutes excuse was both nice and fair. Someone as smart as No. 24 knew that there was nothing unreasonable about that query. His irritated response didn’t come because he thought the question was wrong or dumb, it came because he was just generally in that sort of mood.

All of which brings us back to the original question: was Kobe so quiet/sad/mad/irritated on Saturday because he was in Playoff Mode, or because he realizes how tough the road ahead is?

A few points of note:

- Vegas doesn’t have the Lakers as second to only the Miami Heat in their odds to win a championship this season the way it did in 2011. (Bovada has them 5th.)

- Kobe has struggled against the Denver Nuggets this season, shooting 26 percent against Aaron Afflalo’s underrated defense.

- Danilo Gallinari seemed destined for an All-Star appearance before getting sidetracked by injury; will the Metta World Peace-less Lakers be able to stop him?

- The Lakers have better bigs coming into this series, but the Nuggets have more of them. Will the Nuggets’ natural pace coupled with all the options that they can lob at Bynum and Gasol throw L.A.’s No. 2 and No. 3 guys off their game?

And then, beyond the Denver series, there is still the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs. The Thunder has consistently dominated the Lakers in all games this year that didn’t feature World Peace putting a giant dent in James Harden’s head. Similarly, the Spurs seemed to have little trouble against the Lakers aside from one seemingly fluke-like game, winning the season series 2-1.

Finally, presuming the Lakers beat Nuggets, Thunder and Spurs, there is still the ultra-talented Miami Heat in the Finals.

It certainly can be done, but given the inconsistency we’ve seen from the Lakers this year, it’s hard to envision them winning a title.

Kobe is one of the most thoughtful, knowledgeable basketball players ever. If we know how hard it will be for the Lakers to win a championship this year, he does too.

And perhaps that’s why he was the way he was on Saturday. Not because he’s in Playoff Mode, whatever that means, but because he realizes that with his career on its last legs, this latest championship run will be his most difficult to date. Maybe he’s mad at the world heading into this postseason because he knows the world is going to make him work harder for this title than he’s ever had to before.

We didn’t see Kobe in Playoff Mode on Saturday, because there is really no such thing as him being in Playoff Mode. History has taught us that much. His attitudes have been too different from year-to-year, series-to-series and day-to-day to say that he just flips a switch in the postseason that makes him a certain way. He’s too smart to only be able to function in two modes: Playoff Mode and non-Playoff Mode.

Kobe is way deeper than that.

Yesterday, he was angry, annoyed and irritated. He was focused on something else entirely, counting down the seconds until he could leave to do what he really wanted to do. He was exactly what he’ll need to be for the Lakers’ entire playoff run this year if they have any hope of winning another chip. But he wasn’t Playoff Mode Kobe. He was just Kobe – the same wonderful, fascinating, brilliant, puzzling, frustrating enigma he always has been and always will be.

The Lakers and Nuggets will begin what promises to be a pretty great series today at 12:30 p.m. on ABC.

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