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MILWAUKEE – Leaning on a crutch, Kobe Bryant limped through the corridor of the Bradley Center, bone spurs in his foot, Utah and Dallas on his heels. Here hobbled a peerless personification of the Los Angeles Lakers' season, sputtering and spitting out dust in the final push for the playoffs.
"Inflamed on me," Bryant told Yahoo! Sports. "It's been ongoing with me for a while now."
"I'll be all right," he said.
It was late Thursday, late in the regular season, and Bryant and these Lakers were on the way out of one more humiliating, humbling defeat. Metta World Peace is gone for the season now. Steve Nash tried to play with a hip injury, but had to come out of this flattening 113-103 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Lakers are sluggish, slow and threatening to lose the eighth seed in the Western Conference. They have lost four of five games now, lost momentum. No longer do people speak of them climbing into a sixth seed. The Lakers now try to spare themselves the embarrassment of missing the playoffs. Together, they are holding onto a slab of driftwood in deep, choppy ocean seas.
"Sometimes we look our age," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said.
From a 13-point lead on Thursday night, dismal ball movement, ghastly defensive communication and an unwillingness to engage the springy Larry Sanders on the boards delivered the Lakers back to the brink. Dwight Howard grumbled about the failure to help each other on defense, Pau Gasol declared the ball needed to move away from Bryant, and D'Antoni – never unfolding his arms – decried "too much one-on-one."
Mere weeks ago, there was a belief these Lakers could be a problem for a high seed in a playoff series. Now, they look like an easy out. After all these months, the Lakers are still disconnected, disjointed and sometimes even dispirited.
Now, they struggle to keep these thirtysomething stars on the floor, keep them out of harm's way. As much as anything, the Lakers are too limited without World Peace on defense. If they do make the playoffs, the prospect of Oklahoma City is mortifying to them. Privately, the Lakers staff understands that the loss of World Peace leaves them lacking a defender for Kevin Durant.
And make no mistake: The way San Antonio moves the ball, the way Tony Parker penetrates and conducts that offense, these Lakers simply don't have the athleticism – never mind the staying power – to challenge the Spurs. For reasons of personnel and depth, athleticism and mindset, these Lakers are desperately devoid of staying power.
Bryant had 30 points on Thursday, but missed 11 of 17 shots and looked limited with the bone spur and a sprained ankle. Twenty trips to the free-throw line motivated him to keep luring Bucks defenders into fouling him, and the ball did stagnate in the Bucks late charge to take the game. Within four points of passing Wilt Chamberlain for fourth on the all-time NBA scoring list, Bryant flies to Sacramento with these Lakers and will meet with a foot specialist on Friday.
On his way down the hallway, Bryant limped on those crutches and yet his conversation belied the crises these Lakers face now. He was asking about a reporter's trip to Chicago on Wednesday night, about the latest on the possibility of Derrick Rose returning to the Bulls.
Gasol walked with Bryant, and they had come so, so far from that hug at the end of the Olympics gold-medal game in London. They had come so far from that moment when they believed that bringing on Howard and Nash made them championship contenders again, that moment that they were so full of hope for this season.
When the conversation turned back to the Lakers, Bryant stopped for a moment on the way to the loading dock and team bus. Finally, he was asked: Can you guys hold this thing together?
"I'm not worried," Bryant told Yahoo! Sports. "We're going to be all right."
And Bryant went limping into a chilly Wisconsin night, leaning on that crutch and hobbling into the uncertainty of a stretch run that looms like an anvil overhead for these Los Angeles Lakers.
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