Don't forget Bryant's free throws

April, 13, 2013
4/13/13
7:16
PM PT
McMenamin By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Even in the moment in which Kobe Bryant appeared as vulnerable as he's ever been and proved to actually be just as human as the rest of us, he showed why he's earned the reputation of indestructibility he's known for.

Bryant suffered a complete rupture of the Achilles tendon in his left leg late in the fourth quarter Friday. But before Bryant exited the game, he walked to the free throw line under his own power, made two free throws on one leg to tie the game and shuffled back off the court with his night -- his season -- over.

Both shots were perfect swishes (just listen to the sound of the net snapping at 2:22 and 2:41 of this video), and both shots were every bit as big as the two previous 3-pointers he hit a minute before to turn a six-point deficit back to a tied ballgame.

If you ever need a 30-second clip to sum up who Bryant was as a basketball player, there's your evidence right there.

Those free throws should rank right up there with his most memorable shots, from his one-handed banker against Miami to those two clutch shots against Phoenix in the 2006 playoffs.

Not just because they personify the grit and determination Bryant plays with, but because they are a representation of Bryant's relationship to the game in the first place. How many hours has Bryant spent in a gym with just the ball and the basket? That's what was at the essence of those shots. It was Bryant immersing himself in his rhythm, his shooting motion, his feel, his follow through. It was Bryant blocking out his injury, the future, his past, the Lakers, the Warriors, the fans chanting "M-V-P," the playoff implications.

"He’s remarkable," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "For him to hit the fouls shots is remarkable. It just didn’t end. You have a greater appreciation to what he wills himself to do."

Talking about the free throws brought Lakers trainer Gary Vitti to tears on Saturday.

"Kobe showed tremendous guts out there by hitting the two free throws that kept us in the game and eventually won the game," Vitti said, his voice cracking as he choked up. "The kid went up there with a torn Achilles tendon and buried two free throws. I think it’s a great inspiration for our players."

Lakers vice president of player personnel Jim Buss got emotional, too, as he watched the scene play out on his television.

"Made me cry watching him, the Great Warrior, walk to the free throw line and, of course, make both to keep us in the ball game," Buss wrote to ESPNLosAngeles.com late Friday night. "To me, one of the greatest moments in sports."

It's a moment that has reverberated throughout the league, including with the Lakers' fiercest rival, the Boston Celtics.

"I just love his heart and his toughness," Celtics coach Doc Rivers told reporters on Saturday. "Heck, I love the fact that he got up and made two free throws with a torn Achilles."

The "getting up" part is just as big as the swishes. Most players who tear an Achilles have to be helped off the court by teammates. Bryant made his way around with each painful step on his own two feet.

Bryant needed crutches to stand in front of his locker after the Lakers' 118-116 win that they finished without him on Friday. His eyes were red and bleary from tears. His arms and face bearing the scars of the thousands of scratches his body collected in the sport he's spent half his life -- 17 of his 34 years -- playing professionally. The Achilles was almost like a culmination of all of that.

Bryant underwent surgery Saturday. He'll be out an estimated six to nine months and immobilized for a month or longer at the start.

He'll attempt a comeback and surely hasn't played his last game in the NBA, but even Bryant knows things might never be the same.

"Now I'm supposed to come back from this and be the same player Or better at 35?!?," Bryant wrote on his Facebook page early Saturday morning. "How in the world am I supposed to do that??"

Then again, how in the world was he supposed to make two free throws on one leg?

Dave McMenamin

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Nick Young
PTS AST STL MIN
17.9 1.5 0.7 28.3
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsP. Gasol 9.7
AssistsK. Marshall 8.8
StealsJ. Meeks 1.4
BlocksP. Gasol 1.5