Instead of viewing his fractured left knee as a sign of his demise, Kobe Bryant saw it as another challenge to overcome. Instead of looking at his six-game sample size after healing his left Achilles tendon as evidence that his game has declined, Bryant looked at it as a signal that his play has steadily progressed. And instead of taking his latest injury as an opportunity to write off a season that looks far from championship worthy, Bryant vows to push even harder.
Would you expect anything less from Bryant?
“My job as an athlete,” Bryant said, “is to train, get healthy, get strong and come back and do my job.”
When that happens remains to be seen.
The Lakers estimate Bryant remains five weeks away before returning from a fractured left knee that he suffered in the second half of the team’s 96-92 victory last week against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Bryant described the progress since then as “slow” since his only activity has involved rest, working on an exercise bike and ensuring he maintains a healthy diet. Bryant also called it a “foreign feeling” that he would miss the Lakers’ game Christmas Day against the Miami Heat at Staples Center, the first Christmas Day game he ever missed in his 18-year career. Bryant also conceded the Lakers-Heat game would’ve provided “a big measuring stick” in his progression, citing the Heat’s “activity, speed and their size.”
“My spirits are fine,” Bryant said. “I think I feel more locked during my entire career because of it. The spirits are fine and the focus is great. We’re going to have to see what happens when I come back.”
Part of that stems from Bryant hearing what he called “the same old tune” on whether he could return, let alone play at an elite level.
“It’s funny. Hearing all the comments and things like that just kind of helped enhance my focus more,” Bryant said. “It’s obviously not something I wanted to have happened. But there’s nothing you can do about it.”
The comments hasn’t just involved his game.
Though the Lakers have maintained Bryant’s fractured left knee doesn’t relate to his the strained left Achilles tendon that sidelined him for eight months, outside medical experts have cited what others have echoed. Although no one has access to Bryant’s medical records, they believe it’s possible his overcompensation could’ve disrupted his kinetic chain.
But Bryant said his “Achilles” “felt fine” and described it as “strong.”
“Because it’s Christmas, I’ll refrain from being a smart [aleck],” Bryant said. “I don’t think one had anything to do with the other. We evaluated it pretty extensively. The fact of the matter is any of us can get hurt at any moment. The key for us as an athlete is to block that fear out. When you have injuries, that fear is enhanced. You put yourself under a microscope a little bit and start thinking about it too much. The reality is it can happen to anybody. You have to tune that noise out and go out and perform.”
But for now, Bryant has to wait.
“It’s hard to watch. It’s really hard to watch,” Bryant said. “You want to be out there helping and playing and competing with your guys. Watching is the really really tough part about this. I find myself watching a little bit, then changing the channel, watching a bit and then changing the channel. It’s tough.”
Meanwhile, the Lakers have been hobbled with a depleted lineup that includes injuries to Steve Nash (nerve issues in back) and Steve Blake (hyperextended right elbow). Pau Gasol has battled inconsistency amid ailments involving his health and aggressiveness. The Lakers also have a supporting cast of role players that have helped the team overachieve in some games and fall flat in others.
Add it all up, and the Lakers (13-15) rank 10th in the Western Conference. What kind of record do the Lakers need to maintain before Bryant’s return?
“I don’t know. I don’t know what those numbers look like,” Bryant said. “I’m not really sure. We all know how tough the Western Conference is. But I’m not sure.”
Still, Bryant downplayed any concern about how the Lakers stay afloat without him, or how long of a process it will take for him to integrate back into the lineup. Instead, Bryant simply cited the need for the Lakers’ to improve in several areas, including rebounding (ranked 17th), turnovers (ranked 16th) and fast-break points allowed (ranked 29th).
“You just focus on the game. That’s one of the things I learned,” Bryant said. “You don’t get caught up in the emotion of what’s going on around you. You just focus on the X’s and O’s. At the end of the day, it’s a basketball game. Whoever executes the best is the team that’s going to win. So you have to be able to cancel out all the other noise and distractions and focus on what you need to do to win the game.”
That’s exactly what Bryant did when he suffered the knee injury.
After colliding with Memphis guard Tony Allen midway through the third quarter, Bryant initially believed he hyperexetended his left knee. Bryant walked up, stretched the knee out and talked with Lakers’ trainer Gary Vitti. Bryant then walked back on the court and finished with a team-leading 21 points on 9 of 18 shooting, four assists and four turnovers in 33 minutes. During that game, Bryant also made a flurry of step-back jumpers, including a 28-foot three-pointer that gave the Lakers a 91-85 lead with 2:39 remaining in the game.
That represented his best performance yet in his six-game stretch this season where he averaged 13.8 points on 42.5 percent shooting, 4.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 5.7 turnovers in 29.5 minutes per contest. Bryant hadn’t played above the rim. And his statistical output also marked a far cry from his career averages where he posted 25.5 points on 45.4 percent shooting in 36.6 minutes. But Bryant sensed progress.
“I felt like I learned I could do pretty much everything that I could before,” Bryant said. “The biggest part of my game the last two or three years is getting to the space on the floor where I can elevate and shoot with pull up jump shots and getting into the paint. It was a great test going up against Tony Allen, who in my opinion has defended me the best individually in the league since I’ve been in the league. To have my fourth game in five nights and go up against him and respond to that challenge. I feel really good about it.”
Oh yeah, and Bryant did that essentially playing an entire second half on a fractured left knee.
How did he do it?
“I don’t know,” Bryant said. “You just go out and play and do what you can.”
“I didn’t know it was fractured. I don’t think any of us did. It’s one of those things where you don’t know. You go out there and play. The knee is stiff and it’s painful, but it was now one of those things I’ve played with in the past. You just go out there and do what you do.”
Out of precaution, Bryant saw Lakers doctor Steve Lombardo the following day to have his knee checked.
“I was expecting a bone bruise more than anything else,” Bryant said. “I actually thought Lombardo was joking when he told me. He said it was not funny. He said it was quite serious.”
But instead of moping about that news, Bryant said he’s stayed positive.
He believes he can maintain his conditioning with the bike work before eventually progressing toward running drills. Bryant believes he’ll have a better handle on treating the stiffness in his left ankle that popped up when he played. And though he hasn’t shown the Kobe Bryant of seasons past, Bryant saw a glimpse that he will show in the future.
“I felt like I had some really good questions answered in terms of what I can do on the basketball floor,” Bryant said. “You’re experimenting from game to game and measuring things. I felt pretty good about that. That was the biggest question mark. The knee is not a concern to me. The fracture will heal. The question is how will my Achilles respond to my game. I feel pretty good about that.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org