ATLANTA – In a season marred by one stunning loss after another, the Los Angeles Lakers might have suffered the most devastating setback of them all against the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night.
With Kobe Bryant crumpled in the corner of the floor in front of the Lakers’ bench at Philips Arena with 2.6 seconds to play, all the work the Lakers have done to redeem themselves from a pitiful start to this season flashed before their eyes.
Bryant landed awkwardly with Hawks swingman Dahntay Jones underneath him after his baseline jumper that could have tied the game bounced off the rim. The way the crowd (which was a raucous pro-Lakers group a la Staples Center Southeast) went silent, you’d have thought it happened in Los Angeles.
A severely sprained left ankle will sideline Bryant indefinitely. X-rays of the injury were negative, but Bryant was clearly in pain and limped to the sideline for the final 1.5 seconds of the shorthanded Hawks’ 96-92 win. The Lakers’ chances of finishing off their miraculous reversal of playoff fortunes might also have to be a limp to the finish if Bryant is out for an extended period.
Much was and will be made of the play that Bryant was injured on, with the initial shot fired by Bryant.
“As defensive players, you can contest shots, but you can’t walk underneath players,” Bryant said. “That’s dangerous for the shooter.”
He later Tweeted his frustrations:
Jones, sensing the coming firestorm, refuted all charges and argued that he was only doing his duty as a defensive stopper and nothing more:
Whatever the chatter, the damage has already been done to the Lakers.
Kobe has been the catalyst for the Lakers’ recent run. Winners of 16 of their previous 22 games, the Lakers could not afford to drop a game to a Hawks team playing without injured starters Josh Smith and Jeff Teague and backup center Zaza Pachulia.
Both teams played in Florida Tuesday night — the Lakers won in Orlando, while the Hawks fell to the Heat in Miami — so those fatigue excuses could have worked both ways. Instead of playing like a team possessed to continue their march to the playoffs, though, the Lakers played like a team totally uninterested in anything to do with the game of basketball for much of the first half.
They were down 12 at halftime. They spent far too much time on the receiving end of blows delivered by Al Horford, Devin Harris and the rest of the Hawks’ makeshift lineup (that includes the mighty Johan Petro and Ivan Johnson, who took turns outworking Dwight Howard all over the floor).
“We didn’t play well enough tonight on defense,” Howard said. “We were a step slow, and that starts with me. There were times when I lost my man. [The Hawks] made some tough shots, but we just have to do a better job on the defensive end, and that starts with me.”
Bryant tried to will the Lakers all the way back, scoring 19 of his game-high 31 points in a scintillating third quarter that was vintage Kobe, all the way down to the hook-jawed scowl at the crowd after one of his acrobatic layups. But it wasn’t enough. Not this time. Not with Bryant’s 11-for-33 shooting effort outdone in the putrid department by the 4-for-14 debacle from Steve Nash.
“We just couldn’t make any shots when we needed to,” Nash said. “We didn’t get all the loose balls we needed to as well. I think we just missed shots tonight.
“Very rarely do I say that we lose a game because of missing shots. Usually it’s missed assignments or because of defense, but tonight we just didn’t convert shots. We just had missed opportunities, and missed out on some loose balls that could have made a difference. I also don’t think we had the same bounce in our step that we did last night [in Orlando].”
That was obvious, both early on and late. Howard was brutal in the second night of his homecoming tour. He didn’t get a chance to shoot another 39 free throws like he did in Orlando. His 10 points and 16 rebounds were neutralized by Petro’s 10 points and 11 rebounds.
The Hawks also got a monstrous bench effort from Johnson (12 points and eight rebounds), Kyle Korver (15 points), John Jenkins (12) and Shelvin Mack (seven points), who combined to outscore their Lakers counterparts 46-16.
And, again, while Harris was shredding the Lakers for nine straight points down the stretch, the Lakers were going to win or lose the game with Bryant. The Lakers shot 6-for-25 in the fourth, with Bryant’s 3-pointer with 16.9 seconds to play providing them with one last chance to salvage the night.
“We had a four-point lead, but then we couldn’t knock down any shots, and [the Hawks] started double-teaming Kobe, which means somebody has to step up and make shots,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But that’s not really where we lost the game. What our guys have to understand is we lost the game because we gave up 55 points in the first half. You just can’t do that. We played with fire [and got burned]. We came back and had some chances, but that’s not basketball. We needed to come out [in the first half] like we did defensively in the second half.
“I would have liked to have seen more intensity,” D’Antoni said. “I think in the first half everybody had at least one, ‘Where is my man?’ moment on defense. I understand this was a back-to-back and that happens in the NBA, but you get over that by hitting shots.”
The Lakers will need to see much more from Nash and Howard, depending on how long Kobe is out. Bryant has been known to play through all sorts of pain, but this is the last thing the Lakers needed, particularly in a playoff chase with Houston, Utah and maybe even Dallas that could very well go down to the final week of the season.