LOS ANGELES — Where would the Lakers be without Kobe Bryant?
In a season that so far has prompted more questions than answers, that’s the one query nobody involved with the Lakers wants to think about, let alone answer.
Friday night in Indianapolis, head coach Mike D’Antoni, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and company may actually get a chance to find out what their basketball lives are like without Bryant. He is listed as a game-time decision by the team after severely spraining his left ankle Wednesday night in Atlanta as part of a controversial – some say dirty – play by Kobe’s nemesis, Dhantay Jones.
Jones was involved in a similar play against Bryant during the 2009 Western Conference finals, when he blatantly stuck his foot out to trip Bryant. Kobe wasn’t hurt; the Lakers won that series and went on to beat Orlando for their first NBA title in seven years.
This time they may not be as fortunate.
With about three seconds left in the game, Bryant went up for a possible game-tying jumper and either accidentally landed on Jones’ foot to twist the ankle, or Jones stuck his leg into Bryant’s path, causing the injury. The NBA admitted Thursday that the referees should have called the foul, saying in a statement: “he wasn’t given the opportunity to land cleanly back on the floor.” Regardless of the NBA chastising the officials, the bottom line is: Bryant’s hurt, and the refs once again didn’t make a call they should have.
NBA rules say a defender must give an offensive player room to land after a shot attempt. Jones – intentionally or not – gave Bryant virtually no room for a safe landing, and the refs didn’t give Bryant two free-throw attempts that they should have. The Lakers limped away with a 96-92 loss that could end up being more costly than just a game in the standings, as they lost a chance to grab a tighter hold on the final playoff berth – and may have to figure out a way to stay alive with their best player on the sidelines.
That could be impossible.
Bryant is having one of the best seasons of his career, despite the fact that he’s 34 years old and in his 17th NBA season.
He’s averaging 27.5 points, 5.8 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game. However, there’s no statistic that points out how much his leadership has meant to the Lakers.
He’s the one player who they have been able to depend on when Howard and Nash were recovering from injuries, Pau Gasol was playing poorly and D’Antoni was trying to figure out a workable system for the team he was coaching.
All along it’s been Kobe who hit the big shot, made the big pass, switched roles when needed and kept the team on the same page mentally.
Being without him for any period of time would have proven disastrous for the Lakers. Even with Bryant available, they’ve had a hard time living up to the grandiose expectations placed on them when Howard and Nash joined Bryant and Gasol to supposedly form the NBA’s version of Murderer’s Row. Howard and Nash have stepped up their games and the team has improved, but without Bryant there to take charge, who’s to say that D12 won’t go right back to being the inconsistent player he was for most of the season?
If Bryant can’t shake off the ankle sprain and return to lead the way, will the great run the Lakers have been on for the past six weeks have been all for nothing?
We’ll probably never know, because luckily for the Lakers, Bryant is legendary for his ability to work through all types of severe injuries throughout his career, so he’ll probably find a way to get back on the court quickly. And for a little more good news, Gasol could return from his torn plantar fascia as early as Sunday night at home against Sacramento.
They enter the Indiana game at 34-32 with a half-game lead over a suddenly floundering Utah Jazz team, which has lost eight of its last 10. The Lakers have won nine of their last 12 and 17 of 24 since a 17-25 start to the season. Other than Bryant’s injury and an uninspired loss to the Hawks, things have definitely been getting better for L.A.
But the focus all day Thursday was on Bryant, Jones and the way social media has changed the sports world as we know it. Via Twitter, a war of words sprang up all over the league Thursday afternoon.
Following the game Wednesday night in Atlanta, Jones tweeted: “Tape doesn’t lie. Ankle was turned on the floor after the leg kick out that knocked him off balance. I would never try to hurt the man.”
Bryant replied – via Twitter, of course – “17yrs. Countless fades. This has happened TWICE, Jalen Rose and Now Ankle still very swollen.”
The NBA obviously backed Bryant, and so did Golden State Warriors head coach Mark Jackson, who said flatly: “It was a dirty play.” Harsh words about a player on another team by a current NBA coach.
Then, according to the Los Angeles Times, Jones kept the rhetoric going on satellite radio, saying, “That’s very disheartening and that’s not the way I play the game right now. I didn’t try to do anything to hurt him. I have too much respect for him to try to hurt him.” He also said he commented on Twitter because he didn’t have Bryant’s phone number to call him personally.
And he probably won’t be getting the digits any time soon.
Kobe, however, did get in the last tweet about the matter, writing, “I’ve cried foul play enough Big boy pants time for me. #tweetvent what else is this thing for? Political correctness? Ha. #saywatufeel”
The Lakers want Kobe to say he’s well enough to play Friday night. In social media language, that would read: #goodnewsforlakers #whew!