Kobe Bryant is clinging to the Hollywood script.
The historic narrative of one of the game’s all-time greats is still being written, and this season might be a final feat before the epilogue.
Bryant is dragging the Los Angeles Lakers by his ankles into the postseason, a mark that seemed nearly impossible in late January when the team was a season-worst eight games under .500 (17-25).
The West Coast's super team, loaded with big-name newcomers Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, appeared ruptured beyond repair. Management wasn’t interested in trading its new big man, even as the waters of scoffs and sneers looked to drown the under-performing franchise.
But in an outstretched 82-game season, Bryant never yielded to doubt.
The ninth-place Lakers floated in the wake of the Western Conference’s top eight teams, 3.5 games behind the Houston Rockets. Still, Bryant didn't waver and told Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum that his team would be in the playoffs.
“It's not a question of if we make the playoffs,” Bryant told McCallum on Feb. 21. “We will. And when we get there, I have no fear of anyone—Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver ... whoever. I have zero nervousness about that.”
Okay, Bryant is pretty good with his word.
Since that date, the Lakers have been the sixth best team in basketball with a record of 10-5. Thanks to the Utah Jazz, 3-11 since that day, the Lakers sit proudly in the West’s eighth spot, 1.5 games ahead of Utah and 2.5 games behind the seventh-seeded Houston Rockets.
In 13 games since Feb. 21, Bryant has carried the Lakers, scoring 28.4 points per game on 49 percent shooting and also averaging 6.9 assists and 6.0 rebounds. Howard has picked it up too, averaging 16.5 points, 14.9 rebounds and 2.7 blocks, and Nash is averaging 14.1 points and 5.5 assists.
The winning has been far from storybook though; there’s a difference between a team playing hot and finally playing closer to expectations.
The success isn’t a fluke, but it’s also not as if the Lakers have been on a dominant run like the Miami Heat or Denver Nuggets. Los Angeles has scrapped its way to victories and still hasn’t found a formula to win all the close games.
Bryant's return from his ankle injury included a missed last-second opportunity in the loss to the Washington Wizards on Saturday. When Bryant went down with a sprained ankle in the final moments of a loss to the Atlanta Hawks on March 13, it was the first of three losses in the team's last five games.
Los Angeles continues to defend poorly and still has allowed opponents 101.2 points per game during its recent winning stretch.
The Lakers’ postseason still isn’t a lock.
Of the Lakers' final 12 games remaining, six are against current Western Conference playoff teams. If the Golden State Warriors and Rockets finish well, it may be a battle just for the Lakers to maintain a final place in the postseason.
Utah continues to slide, losers of three consecutive games, but its final 13-game schedule does lighten with eight games against teams with losing record and just five road games. The Jazz are just 10-26 on the road this season but boast a 24-9 home record.
Fighting for the eighth spot won’t be easy for the Lakers, a team that relies so much on its oldest superstar and lacks overall depth, especially after Antawn Jamison sprained his wrist on Saturday.
It’s not going to be a sprint into the playoffs; it will be a hobble across the finish line.
And that doesn’t leave the Lakers in a good place heading into a matchup against the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs.
Bryant's quote about having zero nervousness about a potential postseason meeting with the Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder or Denver Nuggets is just part of his unyielding confidence. Bryant is possessed with ego—all the greats are.
But arrogance is blinding in its nature.
The Lakers can’t compete with a team as glued together and efficient as the Spurs. San Antonio is a much better defensive team that shares success, highlighted by the team’s league-best assist numbers.
The Lakers’ season-long battle for consistency won’t overcome the league’s most consistent team.
But the script of sports is never rational, and any true fairy tale season must triumph over the unlikely.
Bryant’s playing career will eventually expire, and the window for chasing Michael Jordan’s sixth title is shrinking. The old man still has legs of a 25-year-old, and the spotlight of the postseason could breathe further life into a Lakers’ feel-good season.
It’s just not likely.
Jimmy Spencer wants to know your take on how this Lakers' season will end. Follow and tweet him at @JimmySpencerNBA