HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — The reports on Kobe Bryant‘s ankle injury are ominous. The team is calling it a “severe sprain” and has deemed the Los Angeles Lakers’ superstar “out indefinitely.”
Yet why does it feel like Kobe will show up at Indiana Friday night and tough it out in a walking boot if he must?
No one can write off Kobe until he’s actually scratched from the lineup, but Wednesday’s incident in the final seconds of a painful 96-92 loss as Kobe missed a baseline fadeaway to tie and then landed on the controversial feet of Hawks defender Dahntay Jones just might keep him out.
For how long will be the question that decides the Lakers’ fate.
They relied heavily on Kobe’s magic recently to rally past New Orleans and then Toronto to finally barge into the final playoff spot. Without No. 24, L.A.’s chances to remain at No. 8 seem bleak at best, opening the postseason door to the two teams below them in the Western Conference standings: the cratering Utah Jazz and the suddenly surging Dallas Mavericks.
Just 10 days ago, coming off the sting of a 33-point humiliation at Houston that left Dallas at 26-33 and in 11th place, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle sternly said: “I understand if you look at the standings right now it doesn’t look good. But a lot can happen in a month-and-a-half. We got to make a stand.
“If you want to write us off,” he said, “go ahead.”
Since then, the Mavs are 4-0, the Jazz are 1-5 and the previously streaking Lakers are left to cross their fingers for a quick Kobe return.
Still, it’s not like this will be a playoff waltz for Dallas, a chronically inconsistent team sitting in 1oth place and three games under .500 (30-33). Yet the Mavs are just one game back of both Utah and L.A. in the loss column. They’ve played two fewer games than the Jazz, who are 2-8 in their last 10 and haven’t received a spark from the return of Mo Williams. Dallas also has played three fewer games than the Lakers, who dropped to 12-21 on the road (which is where they’ll play half of their remaining 16 games).
Dallas begins a brutal stretch tonight at San Antonio (8 p.m. ET, TNT), the first of a dozen games against 10 current playoff teams, including at the Lakers (April 2). Eight of the 12 are at home and that includes a six-game homestand from March 20-30 against five current playoff teams (four from the East) plus the Jazz on March 24. The Mavs, however, are a pedestrian 17-12 at home and just 4-3 since Feb. 1.
But if Kobe is out for a matter of weeks — and that’s still to be seen — and the Jazz can’t get back in tune, it might not take 48 or 46 or even 44 wins to get in.
Utah’s next four games leading into the showdown at Dallas could determine its direction. The Jazz play the next two at home against Memphis (Saturday) and New York (Monday) and then hit the road for Houston (Wednesday) and San Antonio (March 22). The Jazz are 10-24 on the road, so playing 10 of their final 17 at home is advantageous, although they’re just 2-2 in their last four.
So much now rides on the healing powers of Kobe’s severely sprained left ankle.
A breakdown of the Lakers, Jazz and Mavs down the stretch:
No. 8 LAKERS
Record: 34-32 (16 games left)
Home/Road games remaining: 8/8
Games against current playoff teams: 8
Toughest stretch: March 25 – April 7 (at Golden State, at Minnesota, at Milwaukee, at Sacramento, vs. Dallas, vs. Memphis, at L.A. Clippers)
No. 9 JAZZ
Record: 33-32 (17 games left)
Home/Road games remaining: 10/7
Games against current playoff teams: 9
Toughest stretch: Saturday – March 24 (vs. Memphis, vs. New York, at Houston, at San Antonio, at Dallas)
No. 10 MAVERICKS
Record: 30-33 (19 games left)
Home/Road games remaining: 12/7
Games against current playoff teams: 12
Toughest stretch: Sunday – April 4 (vs. Oklahoma City, at Atlanta, vs. Brooklyn, vs. Boston, vs. Utah, vs. L.A. Clippers, vs. Indiana, vs. Chicago, at L.A. Lakers, at Denver)