Kobe Bryant overcame the odds in every way imaginable, maintaining an elite level in his 17th NBA season, recovering from heavy minutes merely through constant rest and recovery between games and showing an eagerness to repeat the grind all over again.
Because Bryant remained insistent he could play and has shown a consistent track record in managing his body, he set up a system with Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni on how they’d manage his minutes. In between quarters, Bryant would signal a thumbs up or down on whether he could stay in the game. D’Antoni always listened.
But that strategy came to a screeching halt once Bryant fell to the floor in the final moments of the Lakers’ 118-116 victory Friday over the Golden State Warriors, suffering what the team expects to be a torn Achilles tendon in his left foot. Bryant’s scheduled to take an MRI this morning, but it’s far from speculative to say he’s out for the rest of the season and his recovery might eat into the final year of his contract next season.
D’Antoni tried coming to grips with that reality and whether he should’ve sat Bryant for the sake of protecting himself.
“It’s my call at the very end. He gets hurt,” D’Antoni said. “I’m not going to sit here and go maybe he wouldn’t have gotten hurt [if he sat]. You have to go forward. We made decisions collectively and tried to make the best ones we can. That didn’t turn out to be great. It might have been good anyway. We could’ve been a couple games out and not make the playoffs and then he could rest all summer. We’ll go back and forth. But I don’t know hypotheticals.”
There were plenty of times that D’Antoni could’ve sat Bryant against Golden State.
With 10:30 left in the third quarter, Bryant banged his left knee as he drove baseline toward the basket. Lakers trainer Gary Vitti attended to him, but Bryant eventually stood up on his own accord. With six minutes left in the third quarter, Bryant began favoring his right leg and repeatedly tried to stretch it out. But D’Antoni kept him on the floor. Bryant’s 34-point effort on nine of 21 shooting convinced him he could play through the heavy load. After all, Bryant averaged 28 points in 45.6 minutes per game in the last six contests.
Did D’Antoni ever consider taking Bryant out?
“A couple weeks ago, I was banging my head against the wall and he just wouldn’t budge on it,” D’Antoni said. “There’s part of me that didn’t want him to budge either because he’s so important. It’s one of those things that if you had to do it all over again, maybe. I’ll stop and second guess it and look at it. But he’s an incredible competitor and it happened. We’ll go forward.”
Instead, D’Antoni justified his thought process as just a byproduct of this underachieving Lakers season. The Lakers (43-37) have a one-game lead over the Utah Jazz (42-38) for the Western Conference’s eighth playoff spot with two games remaining.
“We screwed it up at the first part of the season to get us to a position where we had to fight this and go through this,” D’Antoni said. “If we got it together a little quicker, if we had the meeting in Memphis two weeks before, we probably wouldn’t have gone through this. But it did. There’s no use crying now. We have to go moving forward.”
If they make the playoffs, the Lakers would likely face the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder, an opponent that would’ve proven challenging even with Bryant in the lineup. But D’Antoni insists he’s optimistic partly because he says Steve Nash could return Sunday against San Antonio after missing the past six games because of persistent soreness in his right hamstring.
“I’m not going to blow smoke out of here, but we’re going to get back Nash back and we have three guys back that are pretty good,” D’Antoni said. “We have more than that, but we have three All Stars forever. But we’re going to play. We’re going to be ready Sunday and fight until the end and make the playoffs. That’s our goal and that’s not going to change. We have to close ranks. We hate it for Kobe. We hate it for us. We hate it for LA. We have to close ranks. There’s no use coming back now.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org