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As the Los Angeles Lakers strive to grab the West's final spot in the postseason, longtime franchise icon Kobe Bryant has taken on an even greater burden. In two games earlier this week, Kobe did to do whatever necessary to take his team to victory, dominating the fourth quarter against the New Orleans Hornets on Tuesday night and scoring a season-high 47 points against the Portland Trail Blazers a day later. Like he's done many times during his career, the fiercely competitive Bryant did whatever he felt he needed to do to win.
On Friday night against the Golden State Warriors, Bryant pushed himself hard enough to suffer what appears to be the most serious injury of his career. With 42 seconds left in the game and the Lakers up 117-116, Bryant was fouled by Warriors wing Klay Thompson on a drive to the basket. He returned to the game to shoot his two free throws, but then walked very slowly into the locker room to receive treatment. You can watch the video above (via @cjzero).
[Related photos: Kobe's tough night on the court]
After the game, the Lakers announced that the injury looks to be quite serious:
Everyone involved with the team, including Bryant, is acting in public as if the injury is a torn Achilles tendon. Kobe is well known for playing while hobbled, but it's impossible to play through an Achilles tear, which typically requires a year of rehabilitation. If anything, it's a wonder that Bryant was even able to shoot his free throws and walk around immediately after the injury. Improbably, the tear followed two more lower-body injuries suffered earlier in the game.
Despite winning the game 118-116, the immediate reactions from the Lakers were understandably distraught. That includes Kobe himself, who gave a fairly long press conference after the game (includes some NSFW language):
If some of the quotes posted to Twitter are any indication, his teammates were more disconsolate. Metta World Peace and Steve Blake did not know how to react:
Bryant has never been the easiest teammate to get along with, but the reactions help demonstrate just how much he means to the team and franchise. Without him, the push to make the playoffs in the last two games of the season will be significantly more difficult, particularly considering the continuing absence of point guard Steve Nash and World Peace's limited status as he plays roughly two weeks after knee surgery. The Lakers hold a one-game advantage on the Utah Jazz for the West's eighth spot in the playoffs, but they're certainly not in an ideal spot right now.
[Related: Updated playoff picture]
Of course, Bryant's likely injury — a complete tear — would keep him out for the majority (if not all) of the 2013-14 season, as well, which puts the Lakers in an even tougher situation. With Kobe set to make more than $30 million in salary next season, the Lakers will get effectively nothing in an on-court production from a large portion of the salary cap. Although they can expect to get a better year from center Dwight Howard, who struggled through much of this season with back and shoulder problems, it's hard to put a value on just how much the Lakers organize their identity and game plan around Kobe's abilities. He's been a dominant force in Los Angeles for more than 15 years.
Ultimately, the greatest impact of Bryant's absence will be to the NBA as a whole. Kobe has been a constant in the NBA for several eras of the league, from the end of Michael Jordan's reign of dominance through the Lakers' own period of excellence in the early '00s and into a new period in which LeBron James looks to be the king of the NBA. Kobe and the Lakers have seen their relevance dip throughout that timeframe, but he has always imposed his will on proceedings to make sure that fans, analysts, and opponents would not take his presence lightly. No player works harder to keep himself from seeing a precipitous drop in production — which is also why he'll probably try like heck to work his way back — and Kobe's 2012-13 season may go down as one of the most impressive offensive campaigns in his illustrious career. Simply put, he is as much a part of the NBA's personality and public image as anyone in the league.
We'll have plenty of time to argue over whether or not head coach Mike D'Antoni asked too much of Bryant in these final games, if this outcome was avoidable, how the Lakers will play without him, etc. However, the most immediate problem facing everyone surrounding the league is how to process an NBA that won't see Kobe Bryant for a sustained period of time. It could take a while to get used to this new reality.
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