Kobe Bryant rises above his injuries
The Lakers' leader overcame his cold shooting streak when his team needed him most
LOS ANGELES -- The only group of people with whom Phil Jackson talks about his coaching decisions on a near daily basis outside of his assistants (he doesn't have a Twitter account like Jeanie, after all) had become quite persistent with the line of questioning.
Why, reporters asked, doesn't Jackson just keep Kobe Bryant and his bum left ankle and stiff neck out of the lineup for some of these relatively meaningless games in March when the team is playing for June?
"We don't talk about taking off," Jackson said before L.A. played Portland on Sunday. "It's not something we talk about; it's not in our vocabulary. It's about; 'If there's a player that has to sit down ...' It's not about calling in sick."
Bryant called the twisted ankle he suffered against Dallas the scariest sprain of his 15-year career, and he hasn't been able to do much besides rehab in the eight days since then. He played in the last two games without practicing and shot a combined 13-for-36 (36.1 percent). Jackson even admitted that Bryant's shaky shot has affected the entire team's offense.
"You can't have guys shoot like Kobe's been shooting recently and have a total team offense that's good," Jackson said. "[Shooting] 7-for-19 drags a whole team down ... I think Kobe's shooting is just a product of him being injured and not being able to stay tuned up."
Rather than put his star on the shelf, however, Jackson trusted Bryant to know his own body and find his way back into what the Lakers were looking to accomplish as a team.
"He's got such personal pride in what he does and he's a professional," Jackson said.
And so, when the Lakers' 84-80 come-from-behind win over the Trail Blazers was finished Sunday, Jackson let the team know just how proud he was, simply writing "Good One" on the white board in the locker room after the game.
Bryant, who started the game 3-for-4 but went on a vicious 2-for-11 cold streak in the middle, finished by making four of his final five shots. In the final 4:19 of the game, Bryant and the Lakers turned a four-point deficit into a four-point win thanks to eight points, three rebounds, an assist and a steal from the guy who hasn't practiced all week.
"You just go back to basics," Bryant said of his approach. "Go back to just the fundamentals of the game and try to make simple plays."
Bryant's signature moment with 32.9 seconds left and L.A. up by just three points was far from simple. He drove right with Brandon Roy glued to him, stopped on a dime about 15 feet from the basket on the baseline and pushed off on that ankle of his to elevate and make a shot that any amount of defense couldn't have managed to stop.
"That's a difficult shot," said Jackson. "We've seen Roy make shots like that. Players that are the difference-makers in this game are the kinds of guys that make those kinds of shots and to have the ability to continue elevating or hang to get the shot off against a good defense."
Said Bryant, simply: "That's my shot. I'm very comfortable with it, I'm very comfortable."
It was a carbon copy of the shot he hit to beat Toronto last year, one of his celebrated eight game winners he had on the season, and it was pretty much the same shot he hit in Dallas to hold off the Mavericks in the fourth quarter after spraining his ankle in the third.
The shot provided temporary pain relief too, as Bryant popped the Lakers logo on his jersey and sprinted down the sideline high-fiving some fans sitting courtside, but the state his body's in is far from comfortable.
"I don't think people quite understand the discomfort and the pain he feels at times with so many different things going on," said Derek Fisher, L.A.'s other hero on the night who had a steal and two big buckets of his own down the stretch.
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"Let's not forget he came off of knee surgery. His fingers look like the PCH [Pacific Coast Highway] as far as how curvy they are and he had one of the worst ankle sprains I've seen in my career and hasn't missed a game. I just think he's a warrior."
Bryant could have taken the night off, but with Andrew Bynum suspended for two games and the Lakers finally finding their rhythm by winning 12 of 13 games since the All-Star break, he wasn't about to sit and watch.
It's the same resolve that fueled him to go on to win Finals MVP for the second consecutive postseason last year despite playing on a right knee that was worse than anyone could really understand. He didn't just have the knee drained once in the first round against Oklahoma City as was widely reported, but twice more -- between the second round against Utah and the conference finals against Phoenix and again between Games 4 and 5 of the Finals -- according to a team source.
"He stays with it, no matter what," said Pau Gasol. "He's determined to make plays. He's very good at finishing out games and making and taking big shots ... It's definitely a marvel."
Bryant picked up the pace of his march toward a sixth ring on Sunday, bum ankle be darned. There's no time to sit with destiny standing in front of you.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.