Among the many things immediately unclear around the Lakers – whether the old Achilles’ tendon injury had any bearing on the new knee injury, whether playing on the wounded knee worsened the condition, why someone with a voodoo doll and enough needles to fill Staples Center hates the franchise so much – one thing had emerged as painfully clear by Thursday afternoon, emphasis on painfully:
This isn’t fair.
Even the strongest Kobe Bryant detractors have to concede that much, right? He has been a monastic worker since arriving in the NBA in the summer of 1996, part of his refusal to give in to any opponent, even ones not playing for another team, making conditioning such a priority that it became one of the divisive issues when Shaquille O’Neal increasingly did not match the commitment… and now his body is doing the one thing Kobe himself would never do. Give up.
Rookies blow out Achilles’ tendons, as Bryant did eight months ago, and teenagers fracture their knee, as he did Tuesday night in Memphis, and so the reaction that he is obviously breaking down from advanced age is rush to judgement that may not be founded in fact. It could just be incredibly bad luck.
It is impossible to avoid the cruelty, though. Even with a troublesome right knee that resulted in jetting to Germany for a unique treatment, even with needing to skip most every full practice for months, even with the torn tendon just above the left knee, Bryant played 240 of a possible 252 regular-season and playoff games the previous three seasons. Ninety-five percent.
This season, he missed the original target of being back for opening night, but still returned about eight months after the Achilles’ injury, right within the window for a player of any age. Bryant did it at 35, struggled to shake the rust (42.5 percent from the field, 6.3 assists against 5.67 turnovers) but still averaged 29.5 minutes. Six games into the comeback, he hurt the knee on the same leg.
Bryant was hurt in the third quarter Tuesday at FedEx Forum while making a move inside on Memphis’ Tony Allen. The Lakers called timeout, Bryant stayed in the game, before being replaced 37 seconds later. Then he played 6 minutes 35 seconds in the fourth quarter, finishing at 32:38 in the 96-92 win that got L.A. to 12-13 and saying afterward the knee was hyperextended.
Thursday afternoon, the Lakers announced that an MRI earlier in the day showed a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau. Bryant would be back on the shelf for another six weeks or so.
It could be that no one or nothing is to blame. Mike D’Antoni will get abused anyway simply for being the coach when the Lakers are far from title contention – Mike Brown says hi! – but it’s not on D’Antoni to interpret medical charts. If he was told Bryant was OK to go back for the fourth quarter in Memphis, Bryant was OK to go back. D’Antoni would not risk the season to win a December game if there was the suggestion of real damage to the knee. (Pau Gasol and Jim Buss, the head of basketball operations, will get abused too, just because.)
The part about what’s next for the Lakers is more definite.
Remember a couple weeks ago? That’s what is next.
The Lakers are back to trying to fill the void, trying to hang on as the new countdown starts, just as they did while going 10-9 in the first absence and Xavier Henry, asked if he thinks the league took notice at L.A. being above .500 without its best player, said, “I hope so. I hope they took notice of how we fight.” If everyone didn’t notice the last time, they will get another chance.
Now, the Lakers are down to their fifth-string point guard, with Henry scheduled to start Friday against the Timberwolves at Staples Center, before a trip to Oakland to match up with Stephen Curry and Phoenix for Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. Good news for the return to Los Angeles, though. No particularly dangerous point guard will be waiting. Only LeBron James and the Heat.
Projected starter Steve Nash is still out, reserve Steve Blake is out, reserve Jordan Farmar is out and Bryant, the emergency starter at the point, is out. Henry is next up the hill. Adding to the agony, the Lakers also announced Thursday that Nash, who two weeks ago was expressing optimism about his rehabilitation from nerve damage in the back, will be out at least another month.