He's been a scorer (27.5 points per game), a distributor (three different stretches of four-plus games with eight-plus assists) and a fiery leader challenging his heir apparent.
But a much different side of Bryant was shown on Friday night, one that the basketball world frankly never wants to see again. Just 48 hours after suffering a grisly ankle sprain in the closing seconds of Wednesday night's loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the Black Mamba was doing his best Willis Reed impression.
It wasn't exactly Game 7 of the NBA Finals, but a trip to Bankers Life Fieldhouse against an Indiana Pacers team that held a 26-7 home record entering the game held serious playoff implications. The Lakers had recently surpassed the Utah Jazz for the Western Conference's eighth seed, but they held that spot by the narrowest of margins (a half-game) entering the game.
After Bryant tweeted a photo of the resulting damage on Thursday, it wasn't a question of whether he'd miss the Pacers game, but how many more he'd miss after it:
kobebryant) March 14, 2013
Yet there was Bryant on the floor for the opening tip. And there he stood at the first quarter's buzzer, playing all 12 minutes of the period.
But this wasn't quite the Mamba we were used to seeing. He attempted four jump shots and missed them all. Some were set up by minimal movement; others were set up by no movement at all.
Defensively, he was a liability. He lucked into a matchup with the offensively limited Lance Stephenson but still couldn't hide his obviously painful movements.
After that opening period, though, Bryant would not be heard from again:
Official update from LAL: @kobebryant is done for the game. He played the whole 1st Q, but can't go any more on the ankle.— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) March 16, 2013
Either Bryant had proved his point to his teammates (he did call on Dwight Howard to play through his pain earlier this season, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles) or coach Mike D'Antoni had seen enough.
Really it was an outcome that all parties should have seen coming:
It was pretty absurd that Bryant played in the 1st place. This was a severely sprained ankle he worked on for 48 hours trying to get ready.— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) March 16, 2013
Bryant's teammates still found their way to a 99-93 win without their MVP leader, with Dwight Howard's 20 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks leading the charge.
But this game's biggest story didn't come from the players who finished the game on the floor, but rather the one forced into an observant role for its final 36 minutes.
The Lakers desperately needed this win, but what will Bryant's first quarter mean for the team's final 15 games? He didn't suffer any apparent setbacks during his limited run, but it's hard to think that playing this game will help fuel his recovery.
Howard has looked better as of late, as he's now topped the 20-point mark in four of his past six games. Injured big man Pau Gasol reportedly said he could return to action next week (according to Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News).
While the cupboards are far from bare, no player holds more importance to the Lakers' playoff hopes than Bryant. He's their unquestioned leader, top scorer and, at times, their best defender and distributor.
Bryant may have lit a fuse in his teammates with his awe-inducing appearance on Friday night.
But Laker fans should be concerned that it will affect the frequency of his appearances down the stretch.
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