OKLAHOMA CITY — The images of an indestructible Kobe Bryant combusted with one sudden pop.
Bryant grabbed his right elbow, winced in pain and motioned to come out of the game. He then headed toward the locker room with Lakers trainer Gary Vitti.
Bryant had suffered ulnar nerve contusion on his right elbow, essentially an injury to his funny bone. But there was nothing funny about it. The Lakers initially considered him “questionable” to return, but Bryant provided more images of his determined attitude only minutes later.
The Lakers’ 122-105 loss Tuesday to the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena may have showed Bryant scoring 30 points on 8 of 19 shooting. But he lacked a supporting cast. Even worse was his post-game recognition on the injury’s severity.
“Every time you try to bend your elbow and extend it, Bryant said, “there’s a little resistance and a lot of pain.”
Still, Bryant made one thing clear.
“I’m going to keep playing,” he said. “This is a critical part of the season to say the least.”
The Lakers (30-31) remain 2½ games behind the Utah Jazz (32-28) for the eighth playoff spot, while falling three games behind the Houston Rockets (33-28) for the seventh seed.
Yet, if the Lakers are to make a playoff push, it’s likely they’ll have to play with injured parts.
That includes Bryant, who said this injury seemed similar to when he experienced elbow tendinitis in his right arm a month ago in the Lakers’ win Feb. 3 against Detroit. But he said the latest injured “lingered more.”
Bryant initially showed signs that the elbow hurt him early in the first quarter after Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha banged into it. Bryant immediately stood off to the side, clutching his arm and wincing in pain. But on the ensuing possessions, Bryant kept adjusting his sleeve and wiggling his right arm. During a dead ball situation, Bryant also bounced the ball in hopes of loosening up his arm.
It worsened, though, after Bryant drove into the lane with his left hand and Thunder forward Kevin Durant swiped the ball. After fouling Durant, Bryant immediately motioned for Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni to take him out. Bryant then headed toward the locker room with Vitti.
“I got popped in the nerve,” Bryant said. “That’s why I wear the sleeve to protect that thing. But it just got popped right on that button.”
That forced Bryant to make several adjustments on his shot, including his follow through and driving more to the left.
“If hes broken in two places, he’ll play,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He’ll play well.”
Still, Bryant conceded he’s going to need more support considering this could become a long-term injury he has to monitor.
How can his teammates ease the burden?
“Just knock down some shots,” Bryant said. “They need to make the shots they have available to them. If they don’t, we have to get second chance opportunities.”
Clearly, that didn’t happen against the Thunder.
Dwight Howard appeared limited in every way. He scored only seven points on 1-of-7 shooting, including zero in the second half.
The Thunder scored a season-high 71 points in the first half. The Lakers committed 16 turnovers and tied an NBA record by forcing only two.
Steve Nash, who scored a season-high 20 points, cut Oklahoma City’s lead to 110-105 with 6:13 left. The Thunder then scored the game’s final 12 points while the Lakers missed their last eight field-goal attempts.
“I’m not discouraged and I’m not encouraged,” Bryant said. “It is what it is. You have to move on to the next one.”
And for Bryant, that will entail playing through an elbow injury that could last for a while.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at email@example.com