By Ben Golliver
Kobe Bryant sustained the "sprained ankle heard 'round the world" on Wednesday night, going down in the closing seconds of a 96-92 loss to the Hawks. The in-game circumstances, playoff implications and basketball ethical dilemmas combined to catapult Bryant's left ankle to the top of NBA headlines everywhere.
Here's what you need to about the injury, the debate it sparked, the history it recalled and the impact it will have on the Lakers' playoff hopes.
How badly is Bryant hurt?
The Lakers announced Wednesday night that Bryant suffered a severely sprained left ankle and, importantly, that an X-ray was negative.
When will he be back?
That much is not yet known. Bryant is officially listed as out "indefinitely," which at first blush sounds more ominous than "day-to-day." The severity of an ankle sprain can be difficult to determine until the swelling subsides. A minor sprain does not guarantee that he will miss time; a serious sprain can require weeks to fully heal, even for a professional athlete. (A weary Kobe tweeted Thursday morning about his treatment.)
Can I watch video of the injury and pretend I'm a doctor?
Here it is:
Did Vanessa Bryant happen to post a photo of Bryant's ankle injury on her Instagram account?
As a matter of fact, she did. A sizable bump on the outside of the ankle is clearly visible.
Why would she do that?
Don't ask questions. Over-analyzing media members and obsessed fans everywhere definitely want to encourage this trend.
How, exactly, did Bryant get hurt?
That's the subject of a little debate.
First, the facts: With the Hawks leading 94-92 with 15 seconds remaining, Bryant worked one-on-one against Dahntay Jones on the right wing. As the clock hit five seconds, Bryant dribbled to the baseline and pulled up for a fadeaway jumper. The shot rimmed off, and Bryant’s left foot landed on Jones’ right foot, as the Hawks' guard closely contested the potential game-tying shot. Replays showed that Bryant’s ankle roll over, and he initially remained motionless on the court as the clock stopped with 2.6 seconds to play. Athletic trainer Gary Vitti attended to Bryant, who eventually walked off under his own power. Yahoo! Sports reported that Bryant called the injury his “worst sprain since 2000.”
Now, the intrigue.
Bryant said afterward that Jones was guilty of a "dangerous" play by sliding underneath his feet as he executed a shot, a play that is viewed as a basketball cardinal sin because the injury risk is so high. Jones said Bryant suffered the injury by landing awkwardly as a result of his kickout leg motion, and that, if a foul was to be assessed, it should have been whistled on Bryant for causing the contact.
Hasn't this type of thing happened to Bryant before?
Yes. In Game 2 of the 2000 NBA Finals, Bryant was undercut by the Pacers' Jalen Rose while attempting a jumper. He was forced from action, finishing with just two points in nine minutes. Bryant did not play in Game 3 but returned for the rest of the series, scoring 28 points in Game 4 less than one week after the injury and 26 points in a series-clinching Game 6 victory.
Here's video of the injury:
Now, Rose recently admitted in a Grantland podcast that he intentionally undercut Bryant, even though he considers avoiding undercutting the "No. 1 unwritten rule" in basketball.
ESPNLA.com reported that Bryant actually referenced this play on Wednesday, saying of Jones, "He Jalen Rose'd me."
Don't Bryant and Jones have some personal history of animosity, too?
Oh, definitely. During Game 4 of the 2009 Western Conference finals, then-Nugget Jones tripped Bryant, kicking out his right foot ever so slightly to prevent the Lakers' guard from receiving the ball on a cut to the hoop. Jones said Wednesday on Twitter that he is "not proud of" that play but that it came during "a heated playoff series with a championship on the line."
Well, whose interpretation is correct? Bryant's or Jones'?
That's a tough one. It must first be said that there is validity, in theory, to what both players are saying.
Sliding under a shooter is absolutely dangerous, as Bryant claims, and referees should penalize egregious undercutting. The NBA uses "unnecessary and excessive" as its standard for assessing a flagrant foul 2, which mandates an immediate ejection. Blatant undercutting would surely fit both criteria and, in a perfect world, would be the type of action that could be reviewed and subject to flagrant designation. Unintentional undercutting? That's a different story. Closing out on shooters is a mandatory aspect of good defense that can result in accidental injuries. That requires a degree of leeway.
Leg kicking, as Jones contends, is against the rules. In October, the NBA announced that the so-called "Reggie Miller Rule" would be a point of emphasis for officials this season. This is pretty cut and dried: Kicking out the legs and initiating contact with the hope of drawing a defensive foul would be ruled an offensive foul. What's more, a player who kicked out his leg to draw a foul and then over-exaggerated the contact could theoretically be subject to an offensive foul and a flopping violation.
So neither Bryant nor Jones is nuts. Clearly, neither player is coming at this from an unbiased perspective and, as a result, the truth would seem to be somewhere in the middle, and significantly less sensational than it first seemed in the immediate aftermath.
First, Bryant's shooting motion looks natural, especially for a fadeaway, and he doesn't seem to be seeking an unearned defensive foul in the slightest.
Second, Jones' defense looks natural, too, as he contests the shot in fairly textbook fashion after initially being back on his heels defending Bryant's move off the dribble. His momentum carries him toward Bryant, natural considering those circumstances, and his attention is on Kobe's release and the shot's arc. His right foot comes forward into landing zone, but it's difficult to say definitively that he did so intentionally and with malice. (Jones stated clearly that he "would never try to intentionally hurt" Bryant.)
Third, Jones' positioning certainly affected Bryant's awkward landing. If Bryant shoots the same shot in an empty gym, he doesn't land as he did without the presence of a defender. Jones' claim that Bryant turned his ankle on the floor can be tossed out of the discussion.
Fourth, Bryant can't be blamed if the only thing he associated Jones with is the trip from 2009. Jones has a million things to think about when the idea of Bryant is brought up; the opposite just isn't true. For Bryant to jump straight to the worst-case assessment of this play, given their history, makes sense. That Bryant would do so knowing how much is at stake for the Lakers, and with the memory of Rose's play in his mind, makes it all the more understandable. "I can't get my mind past the fact that I've got to wait a year to get revenge," Bryant said, according to Yahoo! Sports. You can't deny him those feelings.
With all of those factors on the table, I tend to side with the referees' ruling on the court. This was an unfortunate injury that occurred in the natural course of a very competitive moment in a close game that didn't obviously deserve either a defensive foul or offensive foul. Letting Bryant's shot -- rather than a referee's whistle -- dictate the outcome of the play is the preferable result in a vast majority of late-game sequences.
What does this injury mean for the Lakers' playoff hopes?
The Lakers (34-32) lead the Jazz by a half-game for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. The good news for Lakers fans: L.A. has made considerable progress since we last looked at the Lakers' playoff chances in late February. Just two weeks ago, computer simulations gave the Lakers roughly a 30 percent chance to make the postseason. Now, Basketball-Reference gives the Lakers a 72 percent chance and ESPN.com's model gives the Lakers a 65 percent chance.
That's no small swing, and just about everything went perfectly from the Lakers' standpoint to make it happen. One month ago, the Jazz looked to be the team most likely to fall out of the playoff picture if the Lakers were to squeeze in. That's exactly what has happened and the reversal unfolded very quickly. L.A. is 9-3 in its last 12 games while Utah has nosedived to a 2-8 record in its last 10 games. What's more, the Jazz have a noticeably tougher road down the stretch, including their next four games against teams that are tracking toward the playoffs, and their only wins in the last three-and-a-half weeks came against bottom-feeders Charlotte and Detroit.
Now, the bad news for the Lakers. In Pau Gasol's absence, coach Mike D'Antoni has stuck to a tight eight-man rotation, including four guards in Bryant, Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks. There's just no replacing Bryant's offensive production in that rotation or on this roster as a whole. (Gasol, by the way, said Wednesday that returning next week is a "possibility." He's been out since early February with a foot injury.) Bryant is, far and away, the team's leading scorer (he is second in the league with 27.5 points), and he takes nearly double the number of shots of anyone else. The Lakers compensate for a slightly below-average defense with their eighth-ranked offense, which is primarily powered by Bryant, who ranks 11th in Player Efficiency Rating. The dependable Bryant also is seventh in the NBA in minutes at 38.3, and he hasn't missed a game this season.
Just to hammer home his importance beyond the shadow of a doubt: According to NBA.com, the Lakers score 107.3 points per 100 possessions when Bryant is on the court, a top-five mark if Los Angeles always played at that level. When Bryant sits, that figure slips to 99.1 points per 100 possessions, equivalent to a bottom-five ranking. That's a monster drop-off that should confirm initial fears about what the Lakers might look like without him. The Lakers don't function well without him and, perhaps more important, they haven't been put in a position where they've needed to for more than short stretches within a game. Gulp.
With just 16 games left, the clock is clearly ticking here. If Bryant is able to return after a short absence, as he did during the 2000 Finals, the playoff implications of this injury should be minimal, thanks in large part to the Lakers' strong work over the last two-plus weeks. Hypothetically, if he were to sit out the next three games, Bryant could enjoy a full week of rest because L.A. has three consecutive off days next week.
Anything longer than that, and the losses could start to add up in a compromising manner. In February, we warned of this exact possibility. The Western Conference race is so tight and the competition has been fairly consistent -- Utah's recent slide standing out as a notable exception -- that something as simple as a three-game losing streak carries major repercussions.
The biggest impact, if Bryant does miss time or is unable to return to 100 percent within a week, would be a lowering of the Lakers' ceiling. L.A. is only 1½ games behind the Rockets' for the No. 7 seed. Though Houston's schedule is more favorable down the stretch, catching the Rockets was far from out of the question. Making that pass gets significantly more difficult without Bryant.
Is it time for Lakers fans to panic?
As difficult as it might be to stay calm, panic shouldn't set in for at least a week. If it takes longer than that for Bryant to return and/or the Lakers drop three games in a row without him, things will look different. But, even then, if Utah goes 1-3 against the Grizzlies, Knicks, Rockets and Spurs over the next 10 days, the Lakers aren't likely to lose meaningful ground. The Lakers' threshold for success this season after a poor start has been qualifying for the playoffs, and that remains a very realistic possibility after this injury and it will remain a very realistic possibility no matter what happens over the next week.
Bryant's pain tolerance is legendary. The diagnosis could have been a lot worse. And Bryant has experienced this type of injury before, removing many of the unknowns. The takeaway here: At least let the swelling on Bryant's ankle lessen before sounding the alarm.