EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Even though it's been a rocky start to the season for the 15-15 Los Angeles Lakers, the play of Kobe Bryant has been on point.
After shooting 50 percent or better from the field in each of the first four games to start the 2012-13 campaign, Bryant has proved the increased accuracy wasn't a fluke as his team is more than a third of the way through the season and his field-goal percentage is still a lofty 47.8 percent -- the highest mark of his 17-season career.
Just how good is the 34-year-old Bryant, the league's leading scorer at 30.1 points per game (his highest scoring average since 2006-07) playing?
"This is probably the best I've played in a while," Bryant said after practice Monday. "I've had years the last few years where I've felt pretty good but we kept my minutes down so the numbers didn't look the same, but this year I feel pretty good."
The evidence is in the numbers. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the month of December Bryant just finished playing was historic for him, as he had never reached the averages of at least 33.79 or more points, 5.57 or more rebounds and 4.64 or more assists all at the same time for an entire month before in his career.
Along with Bryant's improved scoring and efficiency, he's playing 38.7 minutes per game, slightly up from the 38.5 minutes he played last season under Mike Brown and significantly higher than the 33.9 minutes per game he logged in his final season under Phil Jackson.
"I think it's just the minutes," Bryant said. "I'm playing more. And I'm also extremely healthy. I had a whole summer to really be healthy, to be in shape, to get stronger and I think that has a lot to do with it. Diet has a lot to do with it, too. Watching what I eat."
Bryant said he was playing on "one leg" in Jackson's farewell season in 2010-11 and the Hall of Fame coach tried to manage Bryant's health by cutting his minutes, something that led critics to declare Bryant's career was on the decline.
"I played OK considering I was on one leg, but the minutes were also down too so the numbers were down," Bryant said. "It was one of the things that kind of frustrated me. Everybody said I was on the decline but the reality is my minutes were just fewer. That's something I took to heart and wanted to come back this season improved."
New Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said the best way to curtail Bryant's minutes will be for the Lakers to blow teams out so that Bryant won't be needed the whole game, like they did in Friday's 104-87 win over the Portland Trail Blazers.
"I would like to get it down by not playing him in the fourth quarter," D'Antoni said. "That's how we need to get it down. Where we have games where he can rest and then take days off and stuff like that. Because, in big games and stuff like that, he's the best player in the world. I have a hard time taking him out."
Following the Lakers' Christmas Day win over the New York Knicks, D'Antoni said he believed that Steve Nash could extend Bryant's career another "five or six years."
"He's playing 40 minutes right now and going as good as he's ever gone so there shouldn't be a limit and that's on him a little bit where he can mentally prepare himself every day," D'Antoni said Monday when asked about his previous comment. "I don't know if that runs out or if he wants to keep on going. That's on him."
Has Bryant's resurgent season got him thinking about playing past the "two or three years" he said he had left in him at the start of training camp?
"No, not really," Bryant said with a smile.
There have been two major factors that have contributed to Bryant's success as he's crept up in years: advancements in sports science, such as the innovative procedures he underwent in Germany on his knee and ankle and also, sticking to a strict diet.
"I think sports medicine is a big one," said D'Antoni, lumping in what it's done for Bryant's fellow 17-year veteran Nash in his answer. "How they do nutrition and how they take care of their bodies and you know, everybody loves to play but you don't like it when you're hurt all the time and they take care of their bodies in a way that the game is fun for them so they can play a long time."
Said Bryant: "There aren't really any supplements that I'm taking from that perspective. What I've done really is just train really hard and watch my diet. I think that's the thing that catches guys most. They don't do self assessing. They feel like they can go out there and do some of the things that they did when they were younger and eat some of the things that they've been (eating) and not accept the fact that what you put in has an impact. I've been able to be honest with myself and have had to cut down on a lot of things and eat very healthy. It sucks, but it's worth it."
As for what's in his diet, Bryant said he has cut out all junk food like his favorites of sugar cookies and Sour Patch Kids and eats lean meats, fish and vegetables. That also meant saying goodbye to the pregame meal he ate before scoring 81 points against the Toronto Raptors: pepperoni pizza and grape soda.
"This summer I got very, very serious about it," Bryant said, crediting his Olympic experience.
D'Antoni is enjoying his steady diet of having Bryant on his team, rather than as an opponent.
"He's played awful good, so it's a high level we're talking about but he's playing phenomenal," D'Antoni said. "You watch him from Phoenix and New York, you get one opinion which is good, but then you coach him and you start to appreciate what he goes through and how he gets himself ready every game. You got to really respect what he's doing."
love this man