Kobe Bryant's performance in Lakers' 106-90 Game 5 victory over New Orleans Hornets provides interesting twist to health concerns
With one drive, Kobe Bryant assuaged all fears about his left ankle and foot.
With one hop off his right foot, Bryant told the doctors he didn’t need crutches.
And with one electrifying dunk over Hornets center Emeka Okafor that prompted him to roar, the Lakers bench to rise and the 19,091 at Staples Center to cheer, Bryant provided a diagnosis that no MRI or X-ray could ever reveal.
Injuries and basketball mileage may eventually win in the never-ending fight to remain on top of his game, but no way will he easily cede that throne to a sprained left ankle and foot. The latest example involves Bryant leading the Lakers to a 106-90 Game 5 victory Tuesday over the New Orleans Hornets and dropping 19 points on eight-of-13 shooting in the process.
A sprained left ankle and foot will only make him more resilient. Having to spend the past two days getting what he called "around the clock" and "non stop" treatment on what he called a "stiff" left ankle and foot will only make him stronger. And having to walk to the team bus on crutches following the Lakers' Game 4 loss Sunday to New Orleans will only make him more determined never to have to use them again.
Bryant epitomized that mindset when he received a pass from Lakers forward Pau Gasol at the top of the key, drove through an opening in the lane and powered with a one-handed slam over Okafor. The significance went beyond cutting the Hornets' lead to 44-42 with 3:33 remaining in the second quarter and proving he still has the athleticism he displayed more often wearing the No. 8 jersey, or as Shannon Brown put it, "It looked like he had his Afro back." The play helped set a tone for a game that ultimately gave the Lakers a 3-2 series lead and a chance to close out Thursday at New Orleans.
"I just had a lane to the basket," Bryant said as he sat on a podium in a postgame press conference, a welcome sight considering he spent the conclusion of the Lakers' Game 4 loss to New Orleans Sunday talking to reporters in the training room. "It looked like [Okafor] was going to challenge me at the rim. I accepted the challenge. It’s a message for us that this is important and we have to raise our game up and do what I do. They know I save those and don’t have much of those left."
Bryant actually had more than just one dunk left. Fast forward to the third quarter where he caught a dump pass from Lakers center Andrew Bynum, drove right past Hornets forward Trevor Ariza, switched to his left hand as he went into the lane and stuffed it home over Hornets forward Carl Landry, giving the Lakers a 65-55 lead with 8:22 left in the third period. Bryant also had more brilliant plays left. He pulled up for a runner in the lane that cut tied the game at 44-44 with three minutes left in the second quarter. He also made a fallaway jumper that increased the Lakers' lead to 71-64 with 5:03 remaining.
These weren't just highlight-reel plays. Bryant's dunk over Okafor served as part of a 16-10 run en route to a 54-51 hafltime lead that featured him scoring 10 of his 12 second-quarter points in the final 3:50. Bryant's dunk over Landry featured an 11-5 run to open the third quarter that featured Derek Fisher's clutch shooting, Bynum's aggressiveness in the post and Artest's consistently strong mark from the field. And that intensity carried over to the Lakers' 22-2 advantage in second chance points, a category Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said "won the game," Gasol roaring after converting on a hook shot and the team's second unit featuring a combined 28 points.
"We all have to step up and play regardless of whether Kobe is limited or not," said Gasol, who posted 16 points on six-of-12 shooting and eight rebounds and appeared much more aggressive. "He didn’t look at all limited tonight. He played really well. His value and effort and will to play helped us."
It was only one day ago where the Lakers faced uncertainty on the severity of Bryant's injury. Despite insistence from the Lakers' training staff, Bryant refused to take an X-ray or MRI, arguing in a spirited defense that it was frankly a waste of time.
"I was moving okay and didn’t feel like it was broke or anything like that," he said. "If it was, it wouldn’t matter anyway. I’d play anyway. It’d be a waste of time to go all the way up there and do that and sit in 405 traffic for two hours. I don’t know why you guys are so concerned about the MRI. It’s not like we’d tell you the results anyway."
Fair point, but despite Jackson's deference to Bryant that "he knows his body that well," even he thought it'd be a good idea to take the exam. I had argued that Bryant should've taken the tests simply from the viewpoint that it'd give him an extra layer of information on how he may need to adjust his game and off-court treatment and out of respect for making the Lakers' training staff's job easier. I stand corrected to that viewpoint as Bryant can now joke he's doubtful" for Game 6 after playing 28 minutes because this remains an ongoing development on how his ankle and feet respond in practice Wednesday and when the team flies to New Orleans, a point Jackson and Fisher also conceded. With the assumption Bryant would receive around the clock treatment and play in Game 5 no matter what, I also stand corrected in believing he'd be more limited than he displayed. The images of Bryant wincing in pain in the final minutes of the Lakers' Game 4 loss to New Orleans and the photos of him walking to the team bus on crutches couldn't escape me. But a lot had happened since that time.
"He’s a hell of an athlete," said Lakers forward Ron Artest, who scored 11 points on four-of-eight shooting. "It’s not that bad of an injury, his athletic ability will take over. Trainers did a good job of treating him. He was ready. If he would’ve slacked off on the treatment, he probably wouldn’t have been ready. But he was getting treated every minute."
Fisher, who's known Bryant since playing together as rookies in 1996, recalled he and Bryant poking fun at all the surrounding hoopla, walking in a Staples Center hallway prior to the game where Fisher pretended to appear what he called "old and decrepit" so that the TNT cameras would focus less on Bryant. The kicker: It didn't work.
But Bryant's situation was far from light hearted. He spent a four-hour overnight flight from New Orleans to Los Angeles icing his ankle and foot, receiving massage therapy and electronic stimulation, an injury so daunting that he did nothing more than handle a basketball during the team's morning shootaround.
The limitation initially showed as he scored 0 first-quarter points, allowed Ariza to score 10 points on four-of-four shooting and prompting Jackson to joke Bryant was being a "liability," a remark Bryant said just points to Jackson wanting to joke around with him and the media. But it was only a matter of time and rhythm where everyone would see what Bryant could truly do.
"He was trying to be patient with himself physically and also continue to get a feel for how they’re defending him and where he can attack," said Fisher, who scored 13 points on five-of-six shooting. "He was very efficient and played a very smart game and I think we fed off of that more than anything. We fed off how smart he played and how efficient he was. He was really good with his decision making as far as when to attack and when to get off the ball."
The fact he did that with a sprained ankle and foot didn't leave Fisher surprised, nor most of the general public. This is, after all, what Bryant does. But as he showed in that leaping dunk against Okafor, Bryant still manages to overcome the increasing injuries that continue to pile, while continuing to leave everyone in awe.
"It felt all right," said Bryant in typical understatement. "It’s the beauty of modern medicine."
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant goes up for a dunk against the Hornets in the first half of Game 5 on Tuesday night at Staples Center. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times / April 26, 2011