EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) — Kobe Bryant had the ball in his hands and the crowd on its feet for the final possession of the first half in his comeback game.
He deked and drove — and his shot was swatted away by Toronto's DeMar DeRozan. After nearly eight months away, Bryant was grateful to be in position to take such a shot for the Los Angeles Lakers, even if it was rudely handed back to him. With his 18th NBA season finally underway, Bryant is confident he'll get past his opening-week jitters and shakiness while his teammates figure out how they fit around him.
"It's the uncertainty of knowing how it's going to take," Bryant said after a light workout Monday at the Lakers' training complex. "In between timeouts, in between quarters, halftime, how is it going to feel? Is it going to stiffen? There's always that uncertainty."
It just takes time, and Bryant will go back to work Tuesday night against Phoenix in his second game back from a torn Achilles tendon. Although he couldn't immediately step into his customary role as the Lakers' dominant player, coach Mike D'Antoni realizes the Lakers' fortunes are tied to the five-time NBA champion guard, particularly in a transitional season for the long-dominant team.
"We know, and everybody knows, he's got to be the closer," D'Antoni said. "And as soon as we can get him there, the more times he's in that position, he'll get closer to doing it." Bryant had nine points on 2-for-9 shooting with eight rebounds and eight turnovers over 28 minutes in his season debut Sunday night, unable to spark a comeback in the Lakers' 106-94 loss to the trade-depleted Raptors.
Bryant ripped himself after the loss, saying he had no rhythm with his teammates and awarding himself a letter grade of "F." After watching film until 2 a.m. following the game, Bryant corrected that grade to a "D."
"It wasn't as bad as I thought it was," Bryant said. "The turnovers and things like that, a lot of it was just missed timing. We made some pretty good reads, got my guys some pretty good looks. In terms of the floor game, it wasn't as bad as I thought it was."
The Lakers reacted to Bryant's return with a mix of excitement and discombobulation, particularly from the newcomers who had never suited up with the fourth-leading scorer in NBA history. Nick Young and Xavier Henry both called it a dream come true, but both scorers also acknowledged deferring to Bryant all night.
D'Antoni repeatedly said the Lakers were "disrupted" by Bryant's return, and while the coach meant it pragmatically, the negative connotation will linger until the Lakers adapt. "There are high expectations," D'Antoni said. "There will be. Rightfully so, and he's going to live up to them, but it's just going to take a little bit of time to adjust to it."
D'Antoni had created an interesting balance in the Lakers' lineup in Bryant's absence, getting scoring from multiple spots on a surprisingly deep roster. That balance inevitably will change with the return of Bryant and his ball-dominating style of play, but Bryant hopes it will be an improvement for a team that was only 10-9 in his absence.
"Chemistry will be fine," Bryant said. "It's not like they haven't been watching me play for 17 years. It's not rocket science. It's not like we were gangbusters before. Guys know how to play with me. It'll be fine. We had plenty of opportunities last night and just couldn't capitalize on them."
Bryant compared the work ahead to the steady process of chopping down a tree. While he's thrilled to be back in competition, he's not looking forward to the cycle of stretching, ice baths and nonstop travel necessary to thrive in the NBA.
The Lakers are headed for a rough stretch later this week, playing four road games in five nights starting Friday in Oklahoma City. Bryant isn't sure how he'll fare under such heavy demands, but he's not interested in half measures
"Once you kind of jump into it, you've just got to go for it," Bryant said. "Just take care of your body, get proper rest ... and see what we can do."