LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant’s teammates knew better than to ask. For the better part of three days they had seen their captain stretched out on a training table. As the Los Angeles Lakers practiced, Bryant spent his time on the sideline or in the locker room with the team’s medical staff working to loosen his back. Only on Wednesday morning did he step onto the court to shoot, and even then he missed more than he made.
Naturally, this didn’t bode well for the Lakers. They had lost their stranglehold on the Utah Jazz, ceding two games and a week’s worth of momentum and confidence. This was not the best time for Bryant to be ailing. As Phil Jackson said in a light moment with reporters: “Is this a Kobe Watch kind of night for you guys?”
Jackson smiled because he knew what to expect. So did the rest of these young Lakers. They huddled in a tunnel here at the Staples Center early Wednesday evening, waiting to run onto the court, their season having reached a crossroads. Bryant nodded.
“I’m good,” he said.
Did anyone doubt he wouldn’t be? Isn’t this what the great ones, the MVPs, do? Bryant once jetted in from a Colorado courtroom to hang 42 points on the San Antonio Spurs in a playoff game, and back spasms were going to stop him?
Not on Wednesday. Bryant stepped onto the stage and starred yet again, fighting off the Jazz in a tense 111-104 victory that left the Lakers within one win of the Western Conference finals.
Bryant’s teammates saw all they needed to see 18 seconds into the game. With the fans having barely settled into their seats, Bryant raised up and buried a long three-pointer. He followed with a 14-foot jumper. Already, his teammates on the bench began to laugh. Lamar Odom had predicted Bryant’s “gun to be blazing,” and it certainly looked like that’s how the evening was heading.
Bryant, however, soon holstered his six-shooters, and that said the most about his performance. He would take only eight more shots, none in the final quarter, but his game-opening volley had served its purpose. The Jazz had been warned. Guard him or else.
Bryant’s back hurt enough to flatten his shot, and, still, it didn’t matter. Once the Jazz leaned their defense toward him, he beat them with his passing, totaling seven assists and six rebounds to go along with his 26 points.
“He really saw the game from a perspective of how we could win,” Jackson said, “and how he could do his best through the team.”
Said Bryant: “I just tried to pick my spots.”
Bryant was able to pick much more than he had three days earlier in Utah. Never in his career has he hurt as bad as he did Sunday. Twice, the back pain dropped him to his knees. He missed 11 of 13 shots in the fourth quarter and overtime of the loss, triggering a considerable amount of call-in concern from the locals here.
Jackson repeatedly said Bryant would be fine, and he was right. Unlike Sunday, Bryant could penetrate. He stayed aggressive, lowering his head and attacking, sucking in the defense to create lanes and shots for his teammates. While the officials rewarded Bryant with 17 free throws, his 10 shots were the second-fewest he’s attempted this season in a game in which he played more than 31 minutes.
“It would be easy for me to settle for jump shots,” Bryant said. “I feel I’m a pretty good shooter, but you got to put the defense in jeopardy. Now we have so many weapons. I have options.”
Among those weapons: Odom and Pau Gasol. More than a few of Odom’s 22 points came on dunks set up by Bryant. Gasol added 21 points while Vladimir Radmanovic relocated his touch to make three three-pointers.
“He was showing the trust in the guys we developed throughout this year,” Luke Walton said of Bryant. “It paid off huge for us.”
Bryant didn’t always defer. After Jazz point guard Deron Williams tied the score with a three-pointer in the third quarter, Bryant posted him on the other end of the floor. Williams lunged left and Bryant spun right, elevating only for a soft layup. He did launch himself for one dunk attempt in the quarter, drawing a foul.
“I didn’t know if I was actually going to quite get up high enough to do it,” he said. “I kind of felt like Luke Walton.”
The Jazz weren’t in quite as jovial a mood. Utah coach Jerry Sloan had warned his players about Bryant, reminding them of Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, when a flu-stricken Michael Jordan lifted himself out of bed to hang 38 points on the Jazz.
“That’s always what great players do,” Sloan said. “They put (their uniforms) on and they go to another level. That’s all I’ve ever seen.”
He saw more Wednesday. Bryant wasn’t dominant, but he controlled the game just the same. Williams threw in a three-pointer to bring Utah within a point with a little more than two minutes remaining. Bryant followed by finding Odom for a dunk.
“It’s promising,” Williams said of Utah’s narrow loss. “We feel like we can win here.”
Deep down, though, the Jazz have to also feel like they wasted a perfect opportunity to steal a game and possibly the series. Five times in the second half they had a chance to take the lead but never did. All on a night in which Bryant was hurting.
The Lakers will now try to finish off the Jazz on Friday in Salt Lake City. It won’t be easy. The Jazz have lost just five home games all season, and only Detroit has managed to win on the road in the second round of these playoffs.
Bryant also said his back felt “really, really tight” after his latest performance. This time, he has less than 48 hours to recover. The hang-up-and-listen speculation will resume. Kobe Watch will start anew.
The Lakers? They’ve learned by now not to ask. Or worry.