ATLANTA — Kobe Bryant limped out of Philips Arena Wednesday night, a severely sprained ankle and revenge fresh on his mind.
With the final seconds ticking off the clock of the Los Angeles Lakers’ most recent loss, Bryant attempted a potential game-tying jumper, with Atlanta Hawks defender Dahntay Jones crowding his shooting space as the shot caromed off the rim. But the focus was not on the missed shot. It was back on the baseline, where Bryant had landed on Jones’ foot and collapsed due to an awkwardly turned ankle.
At that point, Atlanta’s 95-92 win was all but a given; the remainder of the Lakers’ up-and-down season hung in the balance.
There’s little question Bryant has carried the turbulent Lakers (34-32) back into the playoff picture, and the mere sight of the future Hall of Famer on the floor brought an immediate hush to the pro-L.A. crowd in Atlanta. Subsequent X-rays came back negative, but the Lakers’ staff said that the All-Star shooting guard would be “out indefinitely.” That seemed far from Bryant’s mind once he finally emerged from the trainer’s room, though he did acknowledge this is the worst ankle sprain of his career.
“Officials really need to protect shooters. Defensive players, you can contest shots, but you can’t just walk underneath players. That’s standards for the shooter,” said a perturbed Bryant, who did walk off the court under his power. “You just can’t go under the shooters, man. It’s a dangerous play.”
The emphasis on said rule was heightened given that it was Jones, the forward who recently came to the Hawks (35-29) from the Mavericks in a trade deadline deal, who came up under Bryant during his fadeaway jumper with three seconds remaining. As Bryant alluded to, this was not the first time these two have met.
Jones was called for a flagrant foul during the 2005 Western Conference finals when he deliberately tripped Bryant. The frustration from that history, and how it bubbled up at this moment, during this pivotal stretch with nine Lakers wins in 12 games, was all over Bryant’s face.
“I can’t get my mind past the fact that I have to wait a year to get revenge,” Bryant said, presumably of Jones and the Hawks. “I just think players need to be made conscious of the rule. Officials need to protect shooters, period. … I’m always conscious of it. When I go to contest shots, I’m always conscious of making sure I don’t walk underneath them. It’s just a very, very dangerous play, especially if I’m fading away. There’s no rhyme or reason why I should come down anywhere near anybody’s foot.”
From the video of the play, it’s tough to assume Jones was out to injure Bryant. After all, it cannot be easy defending the versatile Bryant in the closing seconds of a game. Bryant said he did not assume that was the case. But the frustration didn’t fade with the acknowledgment.
Now, he’ll face rest and recovery over the next couple of days to determine just how limited he’ll be.
Bryant’s pain threshold is rather famous around the league; he’s missed just 22 games over the past six-plus seasons. But with the Lakers in the midst of a playoff race — with the Atlanta loss, Los Angeles is a half-game up in the Western Conference race, holding down the eighth spot just ahead of Utah — the injury comes at a time when the Lakers can ill afford to lose their best player. As ESPN Stats & Info pointed out: Since 2006-07, the Lakers are 14-8 without Bryant — a respectable record, but one that would probably not be good enough down the stretch of this season.
As the Philips Arena crowd chanted Wednesday, Bryant is a legitimate MVP candidate, even at age 34. He’s averaging 27.4 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists this season, at times keeping the team’s head above water nearly single-handedly.
For some perspective: With Bryant on the floor this season, the Lakers are outscoring opponents by three points per 100 possessions. Without him? Los Angeles has been outscored by two points per 100 possessions. That’s a five-point swing — possibly the difference in playoffs and disappointment. The Lakers are worse offensively, on the boards and in assist-to-turnover margins without him.
That was evident against the Hawks, as Los Angeles came back from a double-digit deficit thanks in large part to Bryant’s efforts in the third quarter. Over one stretch in the period, Bryant scored nine points on 3-of-3 shooting, finishing the quarter with 20 points.
“I think we were all struggling. I was just trying to will the ball into the basket and hopefully generate some energy for all of us,” said Bryant, who finished with 31 points. “Then we all went cold again; we just couldn’t make a shot.”
For his part, when he was asked what his plans are for the injury, he projected the usual confidence — although he was noncommittal. He said he did not know if he would be available for Friday’s game against Eastern Conference No. 2-seed Indiana. So how would the Lakers star approach one of the worst ankle injuries of his career?