NEW ORLEANS — Like most nights in this 19th season of Kobe Bryant basketball, it was better before.
That's the reality of people rightly putting the words "aging superstar" in front of his name, despite Bryant also saying he's doing "pretty phenomenal things" under the circumstances.
Bryant hurt his right shoulder Wednesday night late in the third quarter of the Los Angeles Lakers' 96-80 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. He asked out of the game. He consulted with the trainer, got the shoulder wrapped by the physical therapist and watched the Lakers falter without him—a deficit of three points swelling to 13.
He sat on the bench with his left hand on his right shoulder—rubbing, massaging, probing to find the source of the pain. Unlike a lot of athletes, Bryant has figured out how to deal with the pain once he has it. But all the shoulder shrugs, faux shooting strokes and cranking that joint didn't give him any answers.
Given that it was just "achy," he told Lakers coach Byron Scott that he was all right. Lakers trainer Gary Vitti confirmed to Scott that Bryant, the "toughest S.O.B." with whom Vitti has ever worked, had decent strength in the shoulder.
It was Vitti who, just after Christmas in 2009, had been then-Lakers coach Phil Jackson's messenger to ask Bryant if he could really play through a stinger in his right elbow. Bryant had been dribbling and passing with his left hand.
Vitti consulted with Bryant, got the vehement clarity he sought and returned to Jackson.
"If I tell you he can't play, he's gonna break my arm," Vitti told Jackson that night in Sacramento. "That's to let you know how much he wants to play."
Bryant had just won his first Shaquille O'Neal-less NBA championship with plenty of stories of his fortitude in all the years prior, so his heart was already large enough that it didn't need to grow three sizes that day.
But the legend sure grew as Bryant navigated a half-hour—most of the fourth quarter and part of the first overtime—without proper feeling in his right arm until he felt back in control.
Then Bryant drilled two three-pointers—right-handed—in the second overtime. He was already playing with a fractured right index finger. The Lakers won that game. They would win the title that season, too.
Bryant realized he might need more left-handed magic as he took the court again Wednesday night. He cranked that right shoulder forward a few times, backward a few more, getting it as ready as possible.
Stage set, five minutes still to play. Bryant's legs had been fine on this night after skipping the past two games, so good that he'd hurt the shoulder getting up for a two-handed dunk that saw blown-by Dante Cunningham colliding into Bryant from behind.
As usual, Bryant was not shy when he came back to the game. He got the ball. He posted up and drew a defensive three-second violation with all the attention New Orleans immediately paid him.
Wesley Johnson hit the technical free throw. Considering the shoulder problem, Bryant told Johnson to take that one after he ushered NBA free-throw percentage leader Nick Young aside to take a technical free throw earlier in the game.
Bryant posted up again. This time, he flipped in a stunning left-handed half-hook shot from 14 feet away.
Potential comeback started.
There was a flutter of the old feeling that anything is possible with a player this special and a will this strong.
Before the game, Pelicans coach Monty Williams had said, "Incredible basketball player. When you see him, sometimes you forget how good he was, how dominant he was."
Williams got his start on Gregg Popovich's San Antonio Spurs staff back in the day and said, "Kobe was Kryptonite to the Spurs for a long, long time. That's why they brought in guys like Bruce Bowen and Kawhi Leonard."
Bowen is 43. Leonard is 23. Bryant has been Popovich's poison for that long.
The Lakers' next stop is San Antonio. If Bryant plays there Friday night, he will assume fourth place in all-time NBA minutes, regular season plus playoffs, passing Wilt Chamberlain.
Bryant is now at 55,415 minutes to Chamberlain's 55,418, with third place and Jason Kidd's 56,199 within reach this season…if the MRI on Bryant's shoulder set for Thursday comes back clean.
Popovich's Spurs eliminated the Lakers back in the 2003 playoffs, foiling Los Angeles' quest for a fourth consecutive title with Bryant and O'Neal.
Bryant played that Western Conference Semifinal series with a sore right shoulder, too, having hurt it in Game 2 of the first round against Minnesota after jamming the ball against the front of the rim on an and-one attempt.
Still, Bryant averaged 32.3 points in those six games against the Spurs. Further examination after the season revealed a torn labrum.
It's possible the injury had occurred earlier in that 2002-03 season, or at least that's the legend that has grown in his mind—a notion Bryant is relying on now, when he admitted late Wednesday night that his shoulder had been "bothering me a little bit for awhile" before aggravation on the dunk.
"I averaged 40 a whole month with a torn labrum," said Bryant in explaining how he's not overly concerned about this unspecified shoulder injury.
Bryant indeed scored 40 or more points in nine consecutive games, averaging 40.6 points for the month of February 2003. He had surgery on his shoulder that offseason.
Bryant then separated the same right shoulder the next season in his first ever game against LeBron James…and he again went back into that game, trying to play with—wait for it—only his left arm.
Bryant has hit plenty of left-handed shots in his career. He even hit a twisting, shot-clock-beating three-pointer left-handed against Dallas in April 2005, scoring 12 points in the final four minutes to craft a spirited rally that fell just short.
But on Wednesday night, there was nothing after that lefty shot. He tried it again and was way off, complaining that he got fouled on a nine-footer. He threw some lefty passes that barely got where he was sending them.
His right arm never offered anything but a few dribbles, and the Pelicans pulled away easily.
When Scott called timeout with one minute and nine seconds left and the Lakers down by 14, Bryant waited until after the whistle to try a left-handed 20-footer.
It missed wide and low off the backboard. Bryant walked straight to the bench and gave the Lakers physical therapist a head nod without a word, and it was off to the locker room for treatment.
A very meek way to end it.
Bryant, 36, wasn't downcast afterward. He had been passive early on to thread passes to teammates who kept missing, then struggled to get to his sweet spots on the court and settled for shooting 1-of-5 on three-pointers.
Still, he was OK with his new make-the-easy-play mindset and the final score, the Lakers' sixth consecutive loss.
"I just read the defense," he said. "See what they're giving up and try to make a play. No different than a quarterback sitting in the pocket. Try to make the right reads and make the right plays."
It should be noted that when Bryant fractured his knee last season, he played on and assumed postgame it was only a hyperextension. He downplayed this shoulder issue in a similar manner.
Sports drink in hand, Bryant said he'd get "a little therapy," and even suggested he'd play against the Spurs—although he said he's fine with whenever Scott wants to sit him out.
"Stretching, ice bath tonight, get ready for Friday," he said.
Above all, Bryant wanted to clarify that his legend is not dead despite his minutes-restricted body sometimes feeling like it is.
"We make a lot of it, but the reality is I'm doing some pretty phenomenal things in 30 minutes. My body's not that f****d up," he said.
On this night, though, there were 14 points where there used to be 40.
Bryant saw a mountain he wanted to climb in those final five minutes, yet he wasn't going to break anyone's arm to scale it. When he tried for a few steps, he couldn't keep his footing, then set off to find the long way around.
It was defeat in more ways than one.
Such is the plight of the aging superstar—competing with his former self and forever losing.
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.