NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 21: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts to an officials call during the second half of a game against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center on January 21, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) Getty Images
NEW YORK -- Kobe Bryant hasn't made anything official in terms of this, his 20th NBA season, ultimately being his last. But everything about his on-court performance and his postgame demeanor following the Lakers' 99-95 loss to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Sunday told us that it's going to be the case.
Perhaps due to a combination of a decreased level of ability, a realization that L.A. has almost no chance at making the playoffs and a group of young players on the roster who need the chance to develop, Bryant doesn't look anything like the all-time great we've become familiar with over the years. He no longer brings the ball up to initiate the offense (that's D'Angelo Russell's job now), and he spends a large number of his team's offensive possessions on the weak side of the floor, simply standing around.
When the ball does find his hands, it's usually behind the three-point line, where Bryant typically looks to immediately launch a shot. Of his team-high 19 field goal attempts on Sunday, 10 came from three-point distance, and he connected on just two -- numbers which are right in line with the way his shooting has gone through the first six games of the season.
What's most noticeable is that the intensity and aggression we've come to expect in every minute Bryant is on the floor now only shows up in select spots. He battled Carmelo Anthony defensively on a few different possessions, and did well in stopping the bigger and stronger All-Star more than once.
"It felt good chasing Melo around," Bryant said afterward. "It felt really good. The bodying up and the physicality, it felt awesome."
He also went after Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis in the fourth quarter, hitting the deck to try to grab a loose ball from the seven-footer, while knocking him in the head a couple of times before helping him up after the play was finished. But these moments come sparingly now, and there's a resignation to Bryant's game that was never there before, and it's evident for the majority of his on-court minutes.
As Bryant spoke softly to reporters outside the visitors' locker room when it was over, he seemed like someone who was acutely aware that this was his final trip to MSG. He seemed nostalgic when talking about his past performances in the world's most famous arena, and while recounting his first time playing there all those years ago. And while he wouldn't say concretely that this season would indeed be his last, Lakers head coach Byron Scott shared a conversation that he and Bryant had about him playing in back-to-back games that indicated the possibility has been Bryant's mind for quite some time.
"We talked about it this summer," Scott said. "We talked about it a few days ago, and talked again about it, and his feeling was, 'You know coach, again, this might be my last year. So if possible, I would like to try and play every game.'"
Bryant was peppered with questions about his future beyond this year, and what might go into a possible decision to return to basketball.
"If I want to," he said. "Just desire."
If Sunday was any indication, the desire to simply play out a string of meaningless games without the possibility of competing for a championship will no longer be there for Bryant as soon as this season is finished. And the fact that he was willing to talk about how he wants to be remembered when his playing days are done all but confirmed that this season will indeed be his last.
"Talented overachiever," Bryant said. "I've really worked my butt off every single day to make sure I left no stone unturned, and tried to push it as much as I possibly could."
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