Just when the Lakers were finally looking like the team everyone expected them to be, Kobe Bryant crumpled to the court.
Now, that playoff push in Los Angeles looks a lot more tenuous.
Bryant went down with a severely sprained left ankle after missing a game-tying shot in the closing seconds of a 96-92 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night.
While X-rays were negative, the Lakers said their star was out indefinitely. Bryant conceded it was the worst ankle sprain of his 16-year career but wouldn’t speculate on how long he might be out.
”I’ll just do what I have to do,” the 34-year-old said.
With 16 games left in the regular season, Los Angeles holds a half-game lead over Utah for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Given where the Lakers came from, just making the postseason would be quite an accomplishment. They were 20-26 at the end of January, but have won 14 of 20 and nine of their last 12.
The loss in Atlanta snapped a four-game winning streak.
It might hurt longer than a single night.
With the Lakers trailing 94-92, Bryant drove to the baseline and pulled up for a jumper with about 3 seconds remaining. The ball slid off the rim, and Bryant’s left foot twisted awkwardly when it came down on the right foot of defender Dahntay Jones.
No foul was called, but the Lakers star accused Jones of playing dirty, saying he slid underneath the shooter as he was coming down.
”That’s a shot I’m very comfortable taking,” said Bryant, who is averaging 27.5 points a game and almost single-handedly carried the Lakers back into playoff contention. ”You just can’t go under these shooters, man. It’s a dangerous play.”
Bryant scored 20 of his 31 points in the third quarter and the Lakers, who were down 12 at halftime, surged to the lead early in the fourth. Suddenly, they couldn’t make a shot, going 6 of 25 in the final period.
”We all struggled,” Bryant said. ”I just tried to will the ball in the basket and hopefully generate some energy for all of us. It seemed to turn for us, but then we all went cold again.”
Devin Harris scored 17 points, Ivan Johnson hit a key basket, and the short-handed Hawks shook off Bryant’s big third quarter for just their second win in eight games.
”I took this one personal,” said Al Horford, who had 14 points and 14 rebounds for Atlanta. ”We had lost a couple in a row. I felt like we really needed this one.”
The Hawks won despite missing starters Josh Smith and Jeff Teague, both out with injuries from a loss the previous night in Miami. Six players scored in double figures and everyone contributed to the victory, at least everyone who suited up.
”That’s the way we have to play,” said Kyle Korver, who hit the clinching free throws after Bryant went down. ”When we’re missing guys, we can’t just say, `You’re the next-best guy on the team, you take all the shots.’ That’s a recipe for disaster.
Bryant took a lot of shots for the Lakers – 33 in all – but he made only 11 and couldn’t knock down the one that really mattered.
Then he couldn’t get up.
”First and foremost, the officials really need to protect shooters,” Bryant said before hobbling out of Philips Arena. ”I can’t get my mind past the fact that I have to wait a year to get revenge.”
The teams don’t face each other again in the regular season, having split their two meetings.
”Just move on to the next one,” said Bryant, not exactly sure when that might be for him.
Asked if he thought Jones deliberately tried to injure him, Bryant hedged.
”I don’t ever want to put that on somebody. I really don’t,” he said. ”I just think players need to be made conscious of it. I think officials need to protect shooters.
”When I go to contest shots,” he added, ”I’m always conscious about making sure I don’t walk underneath them. That’s a very, very dangerous play. Especially if I’m fading away, there’s no rhyme or reason why I should come down on somebody’s foot.”
Bryant remained down for a few seconds then hobbled to the bench accompanied by the trainer. He seemed perturbed when the officials explained he couldn’t stay in since the Lakers were out of timeouts.
It didn’t matter anyway when Korver knocked down both free throws.
The Hawks got contributions all around. Harris scored nine straight points in the fourth quarter to help the Hawks regain the upper hand after the Lakers went up 80-76. But the biggest basket was made by Johnson with the Hawks clinging to a three-point lead.
Horford drove along the baseline and missed the shot. But he hustled for the rebound and knocked it right to Johnson under the basket. He flipped in a reverse layup with 33.3 seconds remaining, pushing the Hawks ahead 92-87.
After the Lakers called a timeout, Horford gave Johnson a big hug on the way to the bench. Smith, in street clothes, mockingly threw punches at the burly forward.
But the Lakers had a chance. John Jenkins and Korver both missed free throws, and Bryant knocked down a turnaround 3-pointer off an inbound pass with Jones right in his face.