Kobe Bryant's ability to play through pain jump starts Lakers in 108-95 victory over Clippers
Biting into his jersey, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant headed over toward the sideline.
It didn't appear he said anything to Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, but his body language told the whole story. Bryant limped toward Jackson and let out a simple hand gesture signaling to take him out of the game. Knowing it's rare that Bryant ever avoids playing through pain, Jackson asked zero questions and quickly walked two seats down to tell reserve guard Shannon Brown to enter the lineup with 3:03 remaining in the second quarter Friday against the Clippers. Less than a minute later, Bryant stood up from the bench and entered the locker room with team physical trainer Alex McKechnie following suit.
Bryant temporarily removed himself because of what the Lakers termed an ulnar nerve contusion in his right elbow, a medical description for Bryant essentially hurting his funny bone. But it turns out a halftime's worth of treatment and exercises that entailed stretching his range of motion proved all that he needed. Bryant returned in the second half and scored 18 of his 24 points in the third quarter en route to the Lakers' 108-95 victory Friday over the Clippers.
Factor in Pau Gasol's 22 points off mid-range jumpers and cuts to the lane. Praise Andrew Bynum for his engagement on both offense (nine points) and defense (two blocks). Note Brown overcoming a poor shooting night (10 points on a four of 14 clip) by filling in for Bryant's spot at shooting guard with energy plays. Highlight the bright future Devin Ebanks provided with two late-game alley oops that prompted Bryant to stand up and cheer and Jackson to grimace. And credit the Lakers' defense for holding the Clippers to 37.8% shooting. But it was Bryant's third-quarter effort that propelled the Lakers (41-19) to their third consecutive victory after the All-Star break.
"I've been playing basketball since I was two," said Bryant, who described his right elbow as "very sore," but says he will play through it Sunday at Oklahoma City (36-21). "I can shoot the ball different ways. I don't have to shoot it like I normally shoot it. I can shorten it up. If I bend the elbow a little too much, that's when I feel it. I had to shorten it up a little bit and everything was fine."
Yes, everything turned out fine. After asking Bryant how he felt in the locker room at halftime, Jackson recalled Bryant telling him, " I'll be there." Lakers guard Shannon Brown recalled he and Bryant joking that he was just pulling a "rope a dope" on the Clippers, a charge Jackson joked about afterwards. "Kobe faked them out with the dead arm thing," Jackson said, "and then scored a lot of points." And Gasol later said he didn't even notice Bryant was hurting. Case in point, Bryant stepped on the court and took shots like every other Laker during warmups. But it became very clear how much the elbow affected him as Bryant wore a purple sleeve on his right arm.
His first shot came on a left hook, an attempt Bryant said reflected how the Clippers played defense on him. But he quickly assuaged any fears with the following sequences. Bryant drilled two consecutive three-pointers, the latter one coming after Bynum threw a bounce pass on a give-and-go to Derek Fisher, who kicked the ball out from the baseline to far corner where Bryant drilled the trey. He then hit an elbow jumper, split through a double team to hit a runner and then teamed with Gasol on a give-and-go where Bryant cut to the lane.
After that shot gave the Lakers a 85-67 lead with 14.3 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Gasol pointed to Bryant and gave him a three-second hug. The 18,997 fans at Staples Center in turn chanted "M-V-P" before he failed to convert on the And-1 after drawing a foul on Clippers forward Blake Griffin.
"Nothing he does surprises me," Gasol said of Bryant. "He's a very good player and plays through pretty much anything. You see his hands and all of his fingers are really messed up. I don't know if many players could play like that, or any player really."
Well, Bryant can. He also strained his right elbow last season after being hit on his funny bone near the end of the third quarter of the Lakers' 112-103 double overtime victory Dec. 26, 2009 over the Sacramento Kings. Bryant left the game late in the third quarter and returned a few minutes into the fourth quarter, only to finish with 38 points on 16-for-30 shooting, including two three-points in the second overtime.
That's why Bryant decided to remove himself earlier Friday against the Clippers so that the pain wouldn't be as severe. After fouling Clippers guard Randy Foye on a sequence Bryant later said "hurt like a mothaf*****," he gave out all sorts of signals this was no ordinary injury. When Bryant sat down on the bench, he covered himself with a towel while Lakers trainer Gary Vitti looked at him. Bryant had a hard time bending the elbow because his whole arm went numb. And he gave out other signals that other parts of his body could be hurting too.
With Bryant limping off the court, it's plausible his surgically repaired right knee bothered him considering his acknowledgement there's very little cartilage to support the bone. Since Bryant smacked the ball on Foye's shot, it's possible the arthritis in his right index finger. Or it's plausible the sensitivity to his right pinkie worsened. In this case, however, it was the elbow. Brown's seen it all before to get too worked up over Bryant's health, though.
"As long as his arm is attached to his body, you knew he was going to get out there and give it all he had," Brown said. "It's even worse when he's in pain sometimes because his focus, intensity and attention to detail picks up a little bit. He showed that out there today."
He surely demonstrated that when he stole the ball on the final possession of the third quarter and finished with a left-handed dunk, a play that would've counted had time hadn't expired. It epitomized what Gasol has admired in Bryant for having a "high tolerance for pain" and that "you never know how much pain he's actually having because he's a tough guy." Consider, after all, Bryant's insistence that he didn't take any medication at halftime before proclaiming the antibiotic was labeled "tough as s***."
"I don't think about it," Bryant said. " "I don't want to talk about it. I want to act like it's not there."
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant looks to drive against Clippers guard Randy Foye in the first half Friday night at Staples Center. Credit: Gary A. Vasquez / US Presswire