NEW ORLEANS – Kobe Bryant swayed right, drove baseline, dropped his tongue and threw down a two-handed dunk. In one dashing move, Bryant looked young and spry but it didn’t take long before he started to feel his age again. As he ran back up the court, Bryant reached for his right shoulder and was eager to check out of the game.
“Felt fine when I went up,” Bryant said of his dunk. “Didn’t feel too good when I came down.”
Bryant will have an MRI on his right shoulder Thursday after tweaking it with a highlight jam in the third quarter of the Los Angeles Lakers’ 96-80 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans at Smoothie King Center. The 36-year-old Bryant wasn’t sure if he’ll play when the Lakers suit up in San Antonio Friday but downplayed the severity of an injury that had been bothering him for a few weeks.
“I’ve played with a torn labrum before. I’m not too concerned about it,” said Bryant, who had surgery on the same shoulder in 2003 after averaging 30 points, the third-highest of his career.
Every Bryant knick and bruise is cause for alarm these days, with Lakers Coach Byron Scott recently discussing the possibility of shutting down the NBA’s third-all-time leading scorer to preserve him for next season. The Lakers have been out of contention since November and Bryant has been more precautious about resting and playing fewer minutes after starting this season with an ornery determination to play and produce at the same level at which he had grown accustomed. That approach eventually had to change as the games continued to pile up and Bryant had more difficulty recovering.
“One of the greatest player that ever played, after about a month and a half said – well, I can’t tell you want he said, how he said it – but, ‘My body feels like this.’ So, we’ve got to figure out how to go back to the drawing board,” Scott said. “It wasn’t an injury thing. It was more, his body was just sore. You take a year off, you have the injuries that he had and trying to get back after 18 years of doing this thing, the way he does it. You’re going to be sore. I thought it was kind of no brainer to start over.”
Scott gave Bryant two games off to be physically ready for the Pelicans but it didn’t spare Bryant from leaving the game in the fourth quarter after scoring 14 points on 6 of 14 shooting nor prevent the Lakers (12-31) from losing their sixth in a row.
After the dunk – which he said made his shoulder “a little achy” – Bryant applied a heated pad on the bench and decided he was fit to return. But Bryant was favoring his shoulder and tried to help the Lakers rally back from a 12-point deficit by using only his left arm.
“I was trying to figure out what makes it hurt, sitting on the bench, just kind of moving around, trying to figure out what’s going to activate it,” Bryant said. “I couldn’t find it. But normally, when I find it, then I know how to play around it.”
Scott knew something was wrong when Bryant made a turnaround 14-footer with his left hand and came back down the court and shot a lefty hook that was an air ball.
“Obviously after I saw that, everything he did was with the left hand, then I knew then, let’s get him out of there,” Scott said. “When he went back out, he felt he could play. He always says, he’s got two arms so you don’t necessarily have to use one all the time.”
Pelicans all-star forward Anthony Davis wasn’t aware of Bryant’s injury and watched from the bench in amazement as the future Hall of Famer showed that he is skilled with both hands. “He was hurt? I just thought it was an awesome move, honestly. I thought he’d been working on it. He made it,” Davis said with a shrug, when asked about Bryant’s lefty shot. “Then came back and did it again. I didn’t know he was hurt.”
Bryant averaged team-highs of 35.4 minutes and 24.6 points through the first 27 games. But has been limited 31.3 minutes and 14.6 points while playing eight of the past 16 games. He compared going in and out of the lineup to “riding a bike” but didn’t sound like someone who is looking to end his season any time soon.
“It’s my job to be ready every night,” Bryant said. “I just try to do my part, make sure I get the rest, make sure I stretch, make sure I do strength training. Just try to be ready every single night. Whatever call [Scott] makes, he makes. But it’s my job to be ready.”
And Bryant believes he has made the most of his reduced role. “We make a lot of it, but the reality is, I’m doing some pretty phenomenal things in 30 minutes,” Bryant said. “My body is not that [expletive] up.”