The Los Angeles Lakers dropped a close one to the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night, but might have lost much more than one game — All-Star shooting guard Kobe Bryant suffered what the team called a severe left ankle sprain late in the fourth quarter and has been ruled out indefinitely.
The injury happened in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter, with L.A. trailing the Hawks 94-92 following a very deep Bryant 3-pointer and Atlanta sharpshooter Kyle Korver going 1 for 2 at the foul line:
Bryant took the ball from Lakers point guard Steve Nash and drove right against defender Dahntay Jones, whom the Hawks recently picked up from the Dallas Mavericks. Bryant rose and faded toward the baseline to attempt a game-tying 18-foot jumper with less than six seconds left on the clock. The jumper went long and was rebounded by Korver, but before it even hit the rim, Bryant had come down and landed awkwardly with his left foot on top of Jones' right. (More on this in a second.)
After Lakers guard Steve Blake took a personal foul to send Korver back to the line and attempt to extend the game, Bryant remained on the floor in the corner, clutching his lower left leg. Lakers head athletic trainer Gary Vitti came out onto the court to check on Bryant, who eventually got up and walked off under his own steam, but was forced to exit the game for a play due to league rules governing injury stoppages for teams without timeouts.
After Korver hit his two free throws, pushing Atlanta's lead to four points, Bryant walked back to the locker room before the game's official finish; the Hawks hung on for a 96-92 win without two starters, power forward Josh Smith and point guard Jeff Teague. Bryant finished with a game-high 31 points, but on a sluggish and inefficient 11 for 33 shooting mark, with seven rebounds, five assists and five turnovers in 38 minutes.
The postgame scene in the L.A. locker room came courtesy of Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski:
After x-rays on left ankle, Kobe Bryant limping through locker room with ankle wrapped.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) March 14, 2013
X-rays negative on Kobe's ankle. Severe sprain. — Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) March 14, 2013
And then, the hammer came down:
Lakers say Bryant is "out indefinitely."
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) March 14, 2013
It goes without saying, but we'll say it anyway — any extended absence for Bryant, who leads the Lakers in scoring and ranks second on the team in assists per game, figures to be devastating for an L.A. squad just starting to round into form and play its best ball of the season, winning four straight, six of its last seven and nine of 11 since the All-Star break heading into Wednesday night.
Bryant has been sensational offensively during that stretch, averaging 30.3 points, 7.2 assists and 6.4 rebounds per night on 51.6 percent shooting, 41.7 percent from 3-point range and 80.4 percent from the foul line; he was named the Western Conference Player of the Week for his remarkable run from March 4 through March 10. If the sprain is severe enough to extend Bryant's "indefinite" absence longer than a few games, primary responsibility for keeping the Lakers offense afloat figures to fall to Nash to Howard; Pau Gasol could return from his partially torn right plantar fascia sometime next week, but no specific return date has yet been set.
Back to the play itself: Bryant's injury coming as a result of landing on Jones' foot immediately stirred memories of the kind of perhaps intentional slide-of-the-foot that Bruce Bowen made famous in San Antonio, and which Bryant himself has suffered in the past, most notably in the 2000 NBA Finals while being defended by then-Indiana Pacers guard/current ESPN NBA analyst Jalen Rose. (Rose has since admitted that he deliberately tried to injure Bryant on the play, which is nice.)
Bryant mentioned that play after Wednesday's game, both comparing the severity of the subsequent injury (he missed a game in the NBA Finals as a result of it) and the perceived intent to injure (don't forget, Kobe and Dahntay have a not-so-friendly past) from that play to Wednesday night's incident.
Jones, as is his wont, went on the defensive after the game, proclaiming his innocence:
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
— Dahntay (@dahntay1) March 14, 2013
But Kobe's pretty clearly not buying it:
... which suggests these two are unlikely to start exchanging Christmas cards anytime soon.
Here's Kobe talking about the play after the game:
With the Lakers hanging on to a half-game lead over the Utah Jazz in a tight race for the West's No. 8 seed, any bump in the road is significant ... but it's difficult to imagine any more significant than the loss of Kobe. One bit of good news, if you're a Lakers fan: The team is off on Thursday ahead of a road-trip-ending matchup with the Indiana Pacers on Friday night. We should know much more about the extent of Bryant's injury and the duration of his "indefinite" shelving before then.
If the injury clip isn't rocking for you, feel free to check it out elsewhere, thanks to SI.com's Ben Golliver.
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