LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Los Angeles Lakers spent time on Sunday, Kobe Bryant’s birthday, doing something the franchise’s late star surely would have approved of: getting in extra work on the practice floor.
After shooting just 28-for-43 (65.1%) from the foul line on Saturday in their Game 3 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, Lakers coach Frank Vogel dedicated Sunday’s practice to free throw shooting.
“Everybody made 100 free throws,” Vogel said. “Hopefully we will shoot better at the free throw line [in Game 4] tomorrow night.”
Although L.A. went up 2-1 in the first-round series against Portland, the Lakers’ 15 misses from the charity stripe were the most they’ve had in a game all year, including the regular season. It was their most misses in a playoff game since Game 6 of the 2004 Western Conference finals, when they missed 19, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Shaquille O’Neal accounted for 13 of those.
There is plenty of room for improvement. The Lakers shot 73% from the line before the NBA restart, which ranked 28th in the league. They shot 72.4% in the seeding games, which ranked last out of 22 teams invited to Orlando, Florida. Through three postseason games, their 67.9% mark on free throws ranked last among playoff teams.
That’s the type of deficiency that Bryant, a career 83.7% foul shooter who once swished two free throws with a torn Achilles tendon, didn’t stand for.
Nike, the athletic apparel company Bryant endorsed for years before his death in a helicopter accident in January, released a commercial spot on Sunday entitled “Better” to commemorate what would have been Bryant’s 42nd birthday.
“Wake up every single day to get better today than you were yesterday,” Bryant’s voice can be heard saying in the advertisement. “Whatever it takes.”
The Lakers and the NBA continue to do whatever they can to honor Bryant’s memory. The video board that runs the length of the court at The Pavilion at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex displayed graphics showing a digital rendering of the “KB” patch that the Lakers wear on their uniforms and a white heart with a No. 2 inside it to honor Bryant’s daughter, Gianna, during the Boston Celtics-Philadelphia 76ers game on Sunday.
Vogel confirmed that the team will wear “Black Mamba” alternative uniforms on Monday against the Blazers, with the Aug. 24 game holding numerical significance as 8/24 on the calendar.
“It brings back a lot of the emotions of what happened,” he said. “We’re all still very sad about his loss and Gigi’s loss. It’s just a tough thing for all of us to handle and to go through.”
LeBron James posted a video to his Instagram account of him and other members of the USA Basketball team singing happy birthday to Bryant in 2008, when Bryant turned 30.
Lakers guard JR Smith, who, like Bryant, grew up in the Northeast and made the jump to the pros out of high school, said that Bryant was the standard-bearer.
“I mean, especially as a 2-guard, if you can model your career after anybody at that wing position, it would be a Kobe person. The career, the accolades, the championships and everything else,” Smith said. “I look up to him just as much as I look up to [Michael] Jordan, now that I think about it. He was just so special in everything that he did.”
Vogel was asked if his team will feel extra obligation to “win one for Kobe” on Monday, considering the celebration surrounding the game.
“It’s been important to us all season to embody what he stood for and represent it and to exhibit that ‘Mamba Mentality,'” he said. “So maybe it will be exemplified some tomorrow, but it’s really been with us every step of the way.”
Indeed, Smith — who was not on the team when players had to process Bryant’s death on a plane ride from Philadelphia to L.A. in January — said Bryant has been a constant presence in the bubble. “His name comes up every single day. We chant his name after every break, after every huddle,” he said. “We always speak of his memory. We speak of his mindset, how we can attach that to our team as individuals to collectively come together for this one common goal that we’re all trying to strive to get.”
The Lakers’ pursuit will happen without an old pal — and Finals foe — of Bryant’s, Rajon Rondo, in Game 4. Vogel said the veteran point guard is listed as doubtful because of the back spasms that caused him to be a late scratch for Game 3.
“Pretty sore today from it,” Vogel said. “Never know with the back. You’ve just got to see how it is day-to-day.”
Meanwhile, the team’s thoughts are sure to be with Bryant on a daily basis.
“Every time you hear his name, every time you see his face, every time you see a picture of his daughter, so many memories hit you, and it still — you can’t believe that he’s gone,” Smith said. “He was one of those people that you thought would be here forever.”