Kobe Bryant doesn't need his scheduled MRI on Saturday to confirm his torn Achilles.
He knew from the moment he planted, back initially turned toward Harrison Barnes, sweeping through to take the rookie forward to the hole as he had so many others in the past. Collapsing to the Staples Center floor, clutching his left leg with the same grimace Los Angeles Lakers fans have come to know and love over the past decade-and-a-half, Bryant knew his season (and possibly more) was finished.
Kobe would get up—because he had to. Bryant walked to the line, coolly knocked down two free throws and brought the Lakers to a 109-109 tie. There were a little over three minutes left in the game, one that the Lakers desperately needed to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Under any other circumstance, Bryant wouldn't have thought twice about staying in the game. This time, though, Bryant knew he had done damage to his Achilles—and not the kind he could just gut his way through.
Speaking after the game, Bryant was obviously emotional and said he heard the Achilles pop, per the Lakers' Twitter feed:
Los Angeles Lakers @Lakers
An emotional Kobe: "I made a move I've made a million times, and (the Achilles) just popped."4/13/2013, 5:27:55 AM
There will be no superhuman recovery this time around.
"I can't walk," Bryant said (per the Lakers' Twitter feed). "I can't walk."
He had a lot more to say in an interview following the game on NBA TV:
The Lakers won on Friday, finishing off a cause to which Bryant had poured in 34 hard-earned points. The victory keeps the Lakers one game ahead of the Utah Jazz, a triumph that would have come with unrepentant joy had the aftermath not been so crippling.
Assuming Saturday's MRI confirms what everyone believes, Friday may have been the most hollow win in Lakers franchise history.
Kobe, the Lakers, everyone would give that win away like an unwanted birthday gift if they could just erase Bryant's Achilles with a neuralyzer from Men in Black. The desperation to make the playoffs, the angst to battle back from a 17-25 abyss feels so unnecessary when one of the league's 10 greatest players in history is facing a career crossroads as a result.
At 34 years old, Bryant already knows what he faces in the coming months. He's already planning on what comes next, according to Lakers.com's Mike Trudell:
Mike Trudell @LakersReporter
What's next for Kobe? "MRI, surgery, then recovery." Already planning his rehabilitation amidst a devastating night.4/13/2013, 5:39:56 AM
What actually comes next for this Lakers franchise, one that had been through a cascading waterfall of turmoil this season, is the blame game.
In the days following a major injury to a superstar, the blame torch is passed around like canned yams at a Thanksgiving dinner table. Mike Shanahan was a menace to society when he left an obviously hobbled Robert Griffin III in during the NFC playoffs, a decision that eventually led to the Redskins quarterback tearing his ACL.
Griffin even reached out to Bryant on Twitter after seeing the Lakers star heartbroken at the likely loss of his season:
Robert Griffin III @RGIII
Just watched @kobebryant press conference & I could feel the pain in his voice & know the feeling of pain in his heart4/13/2013, 5:48:53 AM
History is littered with guys who wouldn't have suffered more serious injuries had they just sat through the smaller one. And for every career-threatening ailment, there are millions of couch-potato coaches who make their Monopoly money vilifying the unholy evildoer coaches who just wouldn't say "no" to their star player.
It's a fate that waits Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni in the coming weeks and days. Already a controversial figure in Los Angeles, D'Antoni can expect rampant vilification from Lakers nation, who will come to the defense of their fallen soldier.
He was already human cannon fodder for simply not being Phil Jackson. Losing Kobe Bryant? That will be the nuclear missile to D'Antoni's reputation for many Lakers fans.
It was obvious to anyone watching Friday night's contest that Bryant's foot was injured well before that fateful fourth-quarter plant and collapse. Taking a Festus Ezeli-Harrison Barnes combo-foul midway through the third quarter, Bryant had already tasted the Staples Center floor once against Golden State.
Kobe laid on the ground in that moment, not unlike he did a quarter later. He was attended to by the trainers and could barely even walk on his own, per ESPN's Dave McMenamin.
Bryant missed exactly zero seconds following that initial injury. It was viewed as what Kobe always does, going though the ringer of a human car crash and somehow coming out unscathed. Just Kobe being Kobe.
This time was different. You could see it on the court. Much like Griffin's knee when he was hobbling to the sidelines after a designed run play, Bryant's foot was on borrowed time—we just didn't know it yet.
And yet Bryant played on, 45 minutes in total. Extensive minutes had become the norm during this stretch run for Bryant, who had essentially taken on his role and Steve Nash's down the stretch so that the latter could park himself as a spot-up shooter.
Excluding a 12-minute outing against the Indiana Pacers, Bryant was averaging nearly 42 minutes a game since the beginning of March—a lion's share for a player with over 1,400 games worth of tread on his NBA tires. He was putting up LeBron James numbers at 34 years old, averaging nearly 28 points, seven assists and five rebounds per night while even taking the opposing team's best defender when the situation necessitated it.
Before last Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Bryant spoke about being drained due to the excess of minutes.
"I'm f-ing tired," Bryant said (per ESPN's Ramona Shelburne).
Less than a week later, there will be many who wonder whether Bryant's excess minutes created a cumulative effect that resulted in Friday's injury. He had played in 47 minutes against the Clippers that Sunday, 41 against New Orleans on Tuesday and all 48 one night later versus Portland.
It was necessary for the good of the cause, so said everyone.
"The bottom line, we need to win five straight," D'Antoni said, speaking of Bryant's minutes earlier this week (via ESPN). "We've got ourselves to where we need to win five in a row and we get in the playoffs and that's what we want to do."
Now that the Lakers got their "money's worth" and Bryant is on the injury list, quotes like that from D'Antoni will come up in the coming days. They'll be viewed as precursors to the injury, not just toeing the company line as they had seemed at the time.
Even Bryant, now injured and likely unable to say anything other than what he feels, acknowledged that his minutes were necessary, according to Trudell:
Mike Trudell @LakersReporter
Kobe on if injury had to do with minutes load: "Who knows? It was all necessary. It’s just a freak situation, I guess."4/13/2013, 6:16:18 AM
So is it fair to criticize D'Antoni for keeping Bryant in the game on Friday? Perhaps. But the accumulation of minutes for Bryant was a choice both men made for the good of the team. Kobe Bryant was going to single-handedly carry the Lakers to the playoffs regardless of what D'Antoni said or thought.
Now that Kobe is likely gone, playing the blame game isn't going to help anyone.