SEATTLE – Evidently, Ray Allen’s sin was to say aloud what everyone around the NBA – coaches, players, executives, media and fans alike – was thinking.
Kobe Bryant, who probably feels he’s been battered enough in the last year, responded with sharp words and vows of on-court retaliation.
It was, in large part, a meaningless skirmish of preseason words, but tonight it could very well escalate into something more as two of the NBA’s top perimeter scorers – and two fellows who plainly do not like each other very much – tangle at KeyArena in their first regular-season matchup since that October spat.
|L.A. Lakers vs. Seattle at the KeyArena, 7 p.m. Radio: KJR (950 AM) Television: FSN (Ch. 30)|
The marquee will say Los Angeles Lakers vs. Seattle SuperSonics, but anyone who knows these two athletes and their history of disdain also knows that Bryant vs. Allen is hardly a typical subplot.
“Kobe is coming up here for a purpose,” acknowledged Sonics forward Danny Fortson. “And if Ray uses this to go out there and kick butt, hey, I’m all for it.”
Bryant and Allen have never been good friends, though in recent years the relationship was closer to a spirited and sometimes mildly antagonistic competitive rivalry. The friction grew decidedly warmer, though, following an Oct. 12 exhibition game between the Lakers and Sonics in Anaheim, Calif. Afterward, Allen had this to say about Bryant, who was beginning his first season without former All-Star teammate Shaquille O’Neal:
“(Bryant) feels like he needs to show the league … that he is better without Shaq, that he can win without Shaq, that he can still average 30 points and that he can still carry the load on that team. The point production is not so much what people will look at because (Tracy) McGrady did it in Orlando and Allen (Iverson) did it in Philly. But can you win championships? Can you make everybody better?
“He has the talent, but is his attitude going to sometimes allow him to take the backseat and let Lamar Odom shine and let Caron Butler have his nights and bring those big guys along? If Kobe doesn’t see he needs two good players to be a legitimate playoff contender or to win a championship in about a year or two, he will be calling out to (LA owner) Jerry Buss that we need some help in here, or trade me. And we’ll all be saying we told you so when he says that.”
Upon learning of the remarks, Bryant reacted with something less than civility. Seattle and the Lakers met later in the preseason, and before that game he snapped at LA sportswriters who mentioned Allen.
“Don’t even put me and that dude in the same breath,” Bryant said with obvious anger.
Allen did not play in that second exhibition game. He watched in street clothes from the Seattle bench, and during the game Bryant ended up nearby after chasing a loose ball. Bryant reportedly vowed to kick Allen’s backside the next time they saw each other on the court, a statement that drew a small smile from Allen.
“I guess the comments about him being selfish and trying to help that team be successful bothered him,” Allen said the other day. “I don’t have anything against him in general. That was just my take. I don’t particularly find anything wrong with what I said, but he took it personal and thought he had to respond and be prideful about it.”
If Allen dislikes Bryant, and it certainly seems he does, then he is in step with much of the NBA. Bryant is currently feuding with former teammate Karl Malone over remarks the latter allegedly made to Bryant’s wife, though like any he-said, she-said drama there is uncertainty about what actually occurred. And O’Neal was so put off by Bryant as a teammate, despite four trips to the NBA Finals and three championships in five seasons, that he forced an offseason trade to Miami.
Then there was the sexual assault case that required Bryant to spend much of last season commuting between Los Angeles and a Colorado courtroom. The criminal charges were eventually dropped, though the stigma from that incident will surely linger for some time.
“Kobe’s been through a lot in the last year and half,” Fortson said, “and he’s got to be a little sensitive with anything now.”
Sonics coach Nate McMillan wanted no part of any Bryant-Allen discussion on Monday, and with good reason. Seattle has a 17-4 record that is one of the NBA’s best and McMillan is leery of controversies or any other topic that might distract Allen and his teammates.
Against the Lakers, McMillan said, “Ray’s focus is on what we need to do, which is to play better than we did in the Boston game (a 98-84 loss on Saturday).” The initial tiff between Bryant and Allen “was a couple of months ago,” he added, “and now (the emphasis) is on what we need to do to get ready to win (tonight).”
“We have to protect Ray and help him out,” Fortson agreed. “Not that he’s not man enough to handle his own business, but we need to keep him focused on what the team needs him to do to win the game. We don’t want it to become a one-on-one thing. We want Ray to hit some big shots for us and not get caught up in Kobe did this, Kobe did that.
“If that happens,” he said, “then we can chalk up another loss. And I think Ray is smart enough and professional enough to recognize that.”
Allen has addressed the Bryant issue in recent days, but was more reticent on Monday as he perceived the growing media interest.
Asked if Bryant might come out prepared for a personal showdown, Allen simply shrugged. “Honestly,” he said, “I don’t care how he comes out.”
With the Sonics continuing to win, he went on, “I haven’t thought about any individual matchups because I’m so confident in our team. Things have been going so well for us with the way we’ve been playing that when we played San Antonio the other day, I didn’t think about Tim (Duncan) at all. And I didn’t think about Dirk (Nowitzki of Dallas) the other night.”
Though others might embellish the squabble with Bryant, Allen said, “I don’t make much of it. To me, it’s us against them. I won’t individualize it at all.”