When Kobe Bryant couldn’t be the tough guy on the court Friday night, he resorted to being an MVP coach.
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After hobbling around on a severely sprained left ankle for 12 minutes, Bryant retreated to the bench, where he spent the rest of the night contesting calls, waving teammates into the right spots and even drawing something up on a clipboard for Dwight Howard to see.
He wasn’t going to let up – or let his teammates down.
So on a night Bryant was held scoreless for only the 15th time in his 17-year NBA career, Howard finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds, and delivered a tiebreaking three-point play with 90 seconds left that sent the Los Angeles Lakers past Indiana, 99-93.
”It really just continued to swell and I couldn’t put any weight on it, so I called it a night,” Bryant said after getting more treatment on the sore ankle in the training room. ”I told them before the game, `I don’t know how much I have, but whatever I have, I’ll give you.”’
He did plenty.
Bryant, known as a remarkably quick healer who hasn’t missed a game since the 2009-10 season, gallantly played less than 48 hours after turning his ankle when he landed on Dahntay Jones’ foot in the waning seconds of Wednesday’s loss at Atlanta.
For two days, Bryant worked in silent seclusion. He didn’t speak to reporters when the Lakers took Thursday off, after the team’s morning shootaround or before Friday night’s game started. Instead, he got round-the-clock treatment on what he described as the worst ankle sprain of his professional career.
Coach Mike D’Antoni watched closely as Bryant went through warm-ups, then spoke with the team’s medical staff and again with the five-time NBA champion before putting him in the starting lineup.
Clearly, Bryant was not himself. He went 0 for 4 from the field, coming up short on each shot, then went to the bench after one quarter and never returned to the game. He spent the second half clinging to a little black box with wires attached to the injured ankle.
But he remained active all night on the sideline. Bryant continually pulled players aside during the game, offering encouragement and advice and helping them read the Pacers’ vaunted defense. Eventually, things worked out.
”He was great, he was engaged and he wanted us to win,” point guard Steve Nash said. ”So we had a lot of energy over there.”
It showed on a Lakers team that has spent the last two months trying to dig itself out of an early hole.
Without their top player, the Lakers (35-32) still extended their lead to one game over Utah for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West by beating up on a team that came into the game with the league’s No. 2 defense and the league’s fifth-best home record.
How did they do it?
Metta World Peace finished with 19 points and seven rebounds, Steve Blake made five 3-pointers and finished with 18 points, and Antawn Jamison added 17 points with four 3s.
”We don’t shoot much better than that,” D’Antoni said when asked about going 13 of 26 from beyond the arc.
For the Central Division-leading Pacers (40-25), it was a blown opportunity.
George Hill scored 27 points, Paul George had 20 points and Lance Stephenson finished with 12 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. But Indiana shot only 37.4 percent from the field and couldn’t make a serious run at Los Angeles after Howard’s big play, primarily because the defense couldn’t stop the Lakers from outside.
”We had too many breakdowns, we didn’t follow the game plan,” coach Frank Vogel said. ”Guarding the 3-point line was probably the biggest of the mental breakdowns. We left shooters left and right, a variety of different ways. We didn’t play a good basketball game.”
It was a strange game, too, and not just because of Bryant’s absence.
The Lakers started the game by missing their first five shots. The Pacers opened the second quarter 0 for 6. Neither team topped the 30 percent shooting mark until the final 2 1/2 minutes of the half.
George, the Pacers’ All-Star, started 0 for 4, and Howard, another All-Star, was called for two personal fouls and a technical less than five minutes into the game. Even the officials found themselves making corrections, twice adding time to the clock in the final five seconds of the first half.
On the court, the play was also up and down.
The Pacers took charge early, fell behind 39-28 in the second quarter and eventually closed to 46-41 at halftime. Indiana continued its charge early in the third, using a 15-4 spurt to take a 56-50 lead, and with Bryant out appeared headed toward another home win.
But Bryant inspired the Lakers to rally.
”Kobe said we’ve got to do whatever we can, that we had to trust each other,” Howard said.
Howard’s three-point play gave Los Angeles the lead for good and allowed Bryant to limp off the court by trading high-fives with the players he kept supporting all night long.
”It’s just reading defenses and seeing what’s going on, seeing things we can take advantage of and putting them in the best position possible to be successful,” Bryant said.
Notes:There was no immediate update about Bryant’s availability for Sunday night’s game against Sacramento. … In the final 5.2 seconds of the first half, there were two replay reviews, a 20-second timeout, time added to the clock twice and no points. … The Lakers are 6-8 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, with three straight wins on the Pacers’ home court. … Earlier Friday, D’Antoni said forward Pau Gasol could return in the next few days. He hasn’t played since early February after tearing the plantar fascia in his right foot.