For nearly the last two decades, the Lakers' final shot has been drawn up for one player.
Future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant established himself long ago as one of the game’s most clutch and confident performers in crunch time, and a player whose fellow teammates trust with the ball in his hands in close games.
But a torn Achilles and knee fracture have limited Bryant to just six games this season, the latter of which came three weeks after he signed a two-year, $48.5 million extension.
There’s no replacing Bryant, and the Lakers know it. After Monday night’s 102-100 overtime loss to the Bulls, they’re now 16-26, a full eight games out of the Western Conference’s last playoff spot.
Still, they had won two straight to begin a seven-game roadtrip prior to Monday’s defeat, and the man responsible for a glimmer of hope in Bryant’s absence has been shooting guard Nick Young.
The colorful shooting guard, self-dubbed as “Swaggy P,” has transformed from a streaky shooter into the Lakers’ most trusted scorer, a leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year and a leader within the locker room.
Monday night he was at his best, scoring a season-high 29 points against a stingy Bulls defense, hit three free throws in the final seconds to send the game into overtime and hit a baseline jumper to tie the game with 6 seconds left in overtime.
“He’s a big-time scorer and he can get his shot any time or get fouled,” Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He’s obviously a heck of a basketball player.”
Young came to Los Angeles this offseason, signing a two-year, $2.3 million deal, citing playing time as a major reason for his decision. He knew Bryant would miss the start of the season, but in light of the Black Mamba’s latest injury – Bryant said he still doesn’t have a timetable for a return – Young is back in the saddle at shooting guard. Though he’s only started eight games, he has played 30 or more minutes in 13 of 16 games since Bryant was lost a second time.
Specifically, Bryant said he’s seen more of a fight in Young lately, which has rubbed off on the rest of the team.
“(Young) is getting there, in the sense of the attitude that he’s bringing to play,” Bryant said before the game. “He’s bringing an edge to the game, he’s bringing kind of a combativeness that’s been missing.”
“The hardest thing is the consistency about it. It’s him being able to find that edge and swagger when his shot’s not going and we’re down 15 points. That’s when you need ‘Swaggy P’ to come out, seriously,” Bryant said, “because that’s when his team needs him the most.”
And Young’s heroics Monday night, ironically, came when he was playing his worst. He had made just two of his eight field-goal attempts in the second half, yet showed no hesitation when he took an inbounds pass, and with 4.1 seconds left in regulation drew a 3-point shooting foul with the Lakers down 93-90.
Before the game Tom Thibodeau noted the Bulls would have to "make (him) work for (his) points" and that "you can defend (Young) well and he still has the ability to make" baskets. On that play the Bulls got the switch they wanted, with Joakim Noah defending Young outside the 3-point line. And even after Young was fouled, he still had to work for his points, like Thibodeau wanted. And he did. Young rattled in the first and looked calm on the second and third, knocking those down to send the game to overtime.
And before his baseline fadeaway jumper that tied the game with 6.0 seconds remaining in overtime, Young had missed a 16-foot pull-up jumper and floater in the final 2 minutes with the Lakers trailing by two.
“That’s when big players step up, and that’s what I was trying to do. It’s just a blessing all three of them went in,” Young said. “Lucky I’m a 100 percent free throw shooter.”
The second part of his quote was said tongue-in-cheek, but considering that Young admitted he had never been in that type of situation before, he’s now a perfect 3-for-3 from the line in the clutch.
And part of that newfound confidence – he’s averaging 19.3 points the last two months – has come from Bryant. Though the pair has only played together in six games, Bryant has been a positive voice in Young’s ear from the bench.
The kid who grew up in Reseda, less than 25 miles from Staples Center while Byrant was winning his first three championships, the kid who attended Southern Cal, a stone’s throw from the arena where Bryant scored 81 points in 2006, is now learning directly from the player he once idolized.
“Kobe’s been a great mentor for me, telling me all kinds of things during the game, and that’s been unbelievable for me this year, learning from one of the greatest players to play the game,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want to learn from and have Kobe in their locker room?”
He’ll never be Bryant (will anyone?), but he’s beginning to earn the trust of his teammates, much like Bryant has the last 17 years. He’s well-liked in the locker room, his colorful personality has created a loose environment that has rubbed off on the players around him, but he’s also trusted to take – and make – the types of shots he hit Monday night.
“It’s a lot of pressure, and I look at it as my teammates backed me up and everybody believing in me, so just give me that ball in that situation,” he said.
Added Pau Gasol, who scored 20 points and grabbed 19 rebounds in the loss: “When he feels comfortable, he gets in a rhythm and makes plays. I think he’s the guy that gets more 3-point fouls than I’ve ever seen. I don’t know how that happens so often, but he does it really well and I’m glad he plays for us.”
His teammates still rib him for taking on Bryant’s role. When one reporter mentioned that he had scored 60 points in his last 45 minutes the past two games, a statistic in the mold of Bryant, Jordan Hill chirped in from across the locker room, saying, “Kobe who?” as if the reporter couldn't have been talking about the five-time NBA champ. Chris Kaman, sitting next to Young’s locker, jokingly noted that “Kobe passes.”
All jokes aside, Young’s game isn’t changing any time soon. The Lakers are going to live and die by “Swaggy P” and his shot selection, and right now it’s yielding positive results.
“I can’t play like Kobe…I’m Swaggy P, baby. I like the flash, the jewelry,” said Young, sporting two diamond earrings, a designer backpack and a pair of kicks from his prominent shoe selection. “I’m a flashy man.”
A flashy man with flashy results.