The moment the doors opened to the Lakers' practice facility, plenty of images validated Kobe Bryant's belief he can play in a game sometime this month.
In his first full practice since tearing his left Achilles tendon seven months ago, Bryant participated Tuesday in a full-court scrimmage closed to the media and a half-court, five-on-five scrimmage that stayed open for them.
During the moments visible to cameras tracking his every move, Bryant appeared mostly lively. He nailed a pair of jumpers over Nick Young and Xavier Henry at the top of the key. He also showed a good mix of scoring and facilitating, drove for a layup and set up Wesley Johnson back door for an open shot.
"I just went out there, played and tried to do what I normally do," Bryant said. "I tried to figure some things out I could do at this stage and figure out what I can't do at this stage."
What did he learn?
"I'm able to hold my defenders off pretty easily with my off hand and maintain position in the post," Bryant said. "I'm much much stronger now than I was."
Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni described Bryant as "pretty good," but he also called him "a little rusty."
Bryant threw several passes that deflected off of teammates or went out of bounds. Bryant also airballed a three-point field-goal attempt, said he "didn't feel tired at all" and described his conditioning as "pretty good." But D'Antoni said Bryant rested occasionally during full-court drills.
"They better beat him up while they can," D'Antoni quipped about Bryant's teammates. "After he gets back, they won't be able to."
When that happens remains a mystery.
The Lakers (5-7) play home games at Staples Center on Friday against the Golden State Warriors (8-3) and Sunday against the Sacramento Kings (2-7). The Lakers then have road games against Washington (Nov. 26), Brooklyn (Nov. 27) and Detroit (Nov. 29).
Would it surprise D'Antoni for Bryant to return Friday against Golden State?
"That would surprise me," D'Antoni said.
Would that be impossible?
"Nothing is impossible," D'Antoni said. "But that would surprise me."
Would it surprise D'Antoni for Bryant to play Sunday against Sacramento?
"I don't know when the surprise goes (away)," D'Antoni said. "We have to urge caution. It's going to be a little bit."
Either way, D'Antoni made it clear who's deciding when Bryant will return.
"Do you know Kobe?" D'Antoni said, with a chuckle. "You can guess whose decision that will be."
Bryant obviously wants to return as quickly as possible, but he's stressed the importance about returning fully healthy instead of earlier just for the sake of minimizing potential losses.
"I have to detach myself somewhat in making sure when I come back, I'm ready to give the team the proper lift," Bryant said. "It's very tough to do. But it's something that has to be done."
That's why he sounded reluctant about definitively maintaining a full practice schedule today and Thursday. Bryant said he wants to see how his body responds each morning to avoid putting additional strain on his Achilles.
"There's areas that still need to be stronger in terms of jumping and being able to play quickly, change directions and things like that," Bryant said. "Those are areas you have to get stronger. But I can adjust my game and play at a pretty high level right now."
Bryant also believes the Lakers can play at a pretty high level despite their current 11th-place ranking in the Western Conference, which he described as "pretty deep."
"The important thing is not to focus on what the West looks like and what the field is," Bryant said. "Just focus on yourself and play the schedule you have and win as many games as you can. Then you'll let the dust settle. You can't look at what they're doing and feel like you're playing catch-up all the time.
"There's a couple of games I felt like we could've won where in a one- or two-minute stretch we made a couple errors and the team was able to get away from us a little bit. All in all, I thought we competed very well."
The Lakers lost by single digits to San Antonio and Memphis after nursing double-digit leads. Aside from Steve Blake's game-winning three-pointer two weeks ago in Houston, the Lakers have been struggling closing out games without their best closer in the lineup.
How do they compensate?
"You have to change sides of the floor, change the defense, get out in transition and try to get some easy ones before the defense gets set," Bryant said. "That's the most important thing."
Well, besides Bryant practicing again, of course.
"It felt good," Bryant said. "I put the jersey on and walked out for practice, it felt like it was '97 again and I was getting my first start as a pro."
Even the 34-year-old Bryant, who has won five NBA championships and earned a fourth-place mark on the NBA's all-time scoring list, finds excitement through simple pleasures after spending the past seven months away from the floor.
That's because he still has one thing he still wants to answer.
"Whether or not I'm the 25th-best player in the world," Bryant said, alluding to ESPN's recent NBA player rankings.
"That's the biggest question I had." ___