Kobe Bryant winces as another shot Sunday fails to find the net. (Mark J. Terrill / AP)

Earlier this year, in his 17th NBA season, Kobe Bryant, not entirely joking, said that the Los Angeles Lakers were “old as [dirt].”

Imagine how he feels now.

He is playing monster minutes down the regular-season stetch as the Lakers desperately try to secure a playoff berth. On Sunday, he missed only 40 seconds of the Lakers’ 109-95 loss to the other team in town, the Clippers. Over the last four games, he has averaged 46 minutes while playing with a bone bruise in his foot and on an ankle that he sprained in mid-March.

“That’s the risk that we’re running with Kobe,” Coach Mike D’Antoni said (via the Los Angeles Times). “His legs, we’re playing a little bit with fire and we wouldn’t like to. But we’re putting ourselves in a position where we have to.

“Obviously, if that doesn’t work, then I should have done something else. Right now, I don’t know. I sit him down and we lose; that’s not going to work either. Kobe’s our best bet going forward to win games, and he says he’s going to retire after a year, so we’ll get our money’s worth for two years.”

Bryant, 34, had 25 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds, but he’s clearly fatigued. He made just 6-of-19 shots from the field and had made only one of his last 21 three-point shots. He’s just trying to power through, tweeting Sunday night about the next game on the schedule:

Desperate times call for desperate minutes. There are only five regular-season games left as the Lakers and Utah fight for the final Western Conference playoff spot. The Jazz hold a tiebreaker over L.A. and D’Antoni said his team needs to win all five games to make the playoffs, something Bryant had guaranteed. Steve Nash is expected back from hip and hamstring soreness Tuesday and Metta World Peace is out after having cartilage removed from his knee.

“We’re playing guys on fumes a little bit right now, but we’re going to get some guys back here pretty soon, so we’ll have a longer rotation in the playoffs,” D’Antoni said after the Clippers completed a series sweep of the Lakers and clinched a division title. “I think we’re going to be dangerous.”

First, they have to get there.

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