LOS ANGELES – The shot sailed wide of the rim, and even Kobe Bryant(notes) could see the obvious: There would be no magic for him on this night. Bryant winced as he turned, and soon he was limping off the court, past the Los Angeles Lakers' bench and down the tunnel to their locker room.
Some 30 minutes later, Bryant sat in front of his locker, a towel draped over his neck and shoulders, his feet soaking in an ice bath. "I've felt better," he said, and such is the state of the Lakers these days.
Pau Gasol's(notes) progress is measured in elliptical minutes, Luke Walton's(notes) back aches and now Bryant's groin has sounded its own alarm. Yes, the NBA's reigning champions are hurting, on the floor and off. The Houston Rockets ran around the Lakers on Sunday, sending them to their second loss in three nights, but the evening's most troubling scene came with two minutes left when Bryant made his slow, labored walk from the court to the trainer's table.
The Lakers later revealed that Bryant's groin has bothered him since he strained it a week earlier against the New Orleans Hornets. He tweaked it again against the Rockets, and as Lakers coach Phil Jackson cautioned, "The big thing is that those can linger and be a problem for a while."
Bryant said he will continue to play, as if there were no other alternative. The smart decision would be to rest, but the Lakers know how it goes with Kobe. If he thinks he can play, he'll play.
What the Lakers should then do – and what they've only occasionally done this young season – is make life easier for Kobe. The NBA's six-month regular season often resembles a war of attrition. Great teams know how to avoid burning out their stars before the playoffs.
So far, these Lakers have gone only as far as Kobe has taken them. On Friday, the Denver Nuggets held Bryant scoreless in the second half as they turned a two-point game into a runaway victory. Against the Rockets, Bryant missed 15 of 20 shots, three of which were blocked. The difference between the Lakers' wins and losses can be found in Bryant's productivity: In the three losses, he averaged 19 points on 32 percent shooting; in the seven victories, he averaged 34.9 points and shot 52 percent.
Bryant has obvious reasons for his larger-than-expected workload, not the least of which is that Gasol hasn't carried anything heavier than his sports coat. The Lakers have yet to play a single game with their All-Star forward, who remains sidelined with a sore hamstring. Jackson said Gasol has gone five days without soreness and did some shooting on Sunday, which leaves open the chance he could practice this week.
If the Lakers are looking for someone to lean on in the meantime, they'd be wise to introduce themselves to the 7-foot center under their basket. Andrew Bynum(notes) missed two games with a shoulder injury, but he's been back since Thursday, just in case no one has noticed. Considering Bynum has had his past two seasons shortened by knee injuries, his teammates might as well use him while he's standing.
Few teams can counter Bynum's length and athleticism, and the Rockets aren't one of them. Of the two healthy centers on Houston's roster, one stands 6-11 (David Andersen(notes)) and prefers to hang out at the 3-point line while the team's resident space eater (Chuck Hayes(notes)) measures all of 6-6. Bynum didn't have much trouble punishing anyone the Rockets threw at him early in the game as the Lakers built a double-digit lead. Needing someone to help settle the offense in the second half, the Lakers were too quick to hoist away from the perimeter.
Bynum "got three shots in the second half and he was our most effective scorer out there," Jackson said. "That's a shame."
The Lakers had a similar problem against the Nuggets. For a team that declared it was taking aim at the Chicago Bulls' record 72 wins, L.A. has struggled to gain much traction over the past week. Already, the Lakers have three losses, despite opening the season with a cushy schedule that allows them to play 17 of their first 21 games at home.
"These are games we should not be losing," Bynum said. "We're going out and playing subpar basketball for this team."
The Lakers began Sunday by giving Trevor Ariza(notes) his championship ring, along with a warm standing ovation. By the third quarter, those same fans were showering the Lakers with boos, no doubt influenced by the Rockets' staggering 60-38 rebounding advantage. Three nights, two lopsided losses.
"I'm mortified," Bryant said.
He was joking. Kobe naturally sees little reason to panic. The season's only a month old. Injuries heal. Gasol will return. Ron Artest(notes) should grow more comfortable with his role. They will get better.
For now, though, the Lakers shouldn't count on Kobe to do all the heavy lifting. Bryant said his groin strain impacts "pretty much everything" in his game, and, as Jackson said, these injuries can linger. Ask too much of Kobe now and you might get too little later.