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Lakers' Bryant won't let injuries slow him

Posted Dec 30 2009 6:43PM

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Kobe Bryant hasn't been trapped in a fancy Los Angeles building and surrounded by vicious enemies led by a brilliant German since the last time Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks visited Staples Center.

Still, the Los Angeles Lakers' unbreakable star was only half-joking recently when he said he was Bruce Willis -- you know, the "Die Hard" star famed for playing action heroes who can't be stopped, no matter the odds or injuries stacked against them.

With a broken index finger on his shooting hand, a strained elbow and several additional woes that have come and gone this season, Bryant is persevering through an uncommon spate of significant injuries without missing a game for the defending NBA champions.

"Injuries don't affect me," he said. "I'm not going to sit here and say I've got a (bad) knee, I've got a (bad) finger. I'm fine. I'm more than fine. I always keep playing."

Bryant's season-high 44-point performance in a 124-118 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday propelled him past Denver's Carmelo Anthony into the overall NBA scoring lead with 30.4 points per game. He has averaged more than 38 points over the Lakers' last five outings, starting with a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder last week in which he was elbowed in the jaw before coming uncomfortably close to a major knee injury as he dropped 40 on them.

What's more, Bryant is doing all this shooting and dribbling with an avulsion fracture -- a fragment of bone torn away by a tendon or ligament -- in his index finger, the most important digit for controlling his shot. He plays wearing a soft white protective padding that appears to be one of Mickey Mouse's fingers, and he sometimes resorts to left-handed shots in tough situations, using the ambidextrous shooting skills he has practiced since childhood.

"I don't know how he does what he does," Lakers forward Lamar Odom said. "I've never seen him have trouble adjusting because of injuries. It's one thing to play through an injury, but to play at the level he does with the injuries he has, it's crazy. We aren't surprised by anything now."

Bryant's biggest worry about his broken finger was its effect on his free throws, which rely most heavily on his touch. Yet he made 16 without a miss in the win over Golden State on Tuesday, blowing away Warriors coach Don Nelson.

"That guy is amazing," Nelson said. "To be able to shoot like he did with the finger problems that he has on his shooting hand, it's amazing. I love watching him play, and it's always a pleasure to coach against him."

Yet Bryant doesn't want to hear any praise or credit for his effort. He rarely talks about his injuries except when pestered by the media, and he reacts almost angrily to suggestions he's doing something remarkable.

"Man, stop asking me about injuries," he said with mock indignation. "You think I'm not going to play? I'm fine. ... It's just a different technique to shoot the ball."

Bryant had two scares last week in that win over Oklahoma City, and the elbow to his face from Russell Westbrook wasn't even the worst: Staples Center went silent with fear when Bryant's left knee bent back awkwardly on landing. The play worried coach Phil Jackson, who saw Karl Malone get a serious knee injury on a similar play, yet Bryant came back after a timeout and finished the game, attributing his ligaments' survival to luck and a natural flexibility.

Bryant's most recent injury was a strained right elbow, which occurred in the second half of a double-overtime victory against the Sacramento Kings one night after the Christmas flop. He played through the pain of what he believes was a stinger, but his entire arm below the elbow went numb in the process, making his late-game 3-pointers to beat the Kings even more impressive.

Bryant has done this before. He tore a ligament in his right pinky finger in February 2008, but postponed corrective surgery until after the Beijing Olympics, playing through the pain from that injury and a dislocated ring finger nearly a year ago.

When nearly two years of basketball without a break culminated in the Lakers' 15th title last season, Bryant finally got an extended rest period -- yet he also carried the Lakers early this season with his much-improved low-post game while Pau Gasol was sidelined by an injured hamstring. He has done more scoring with jumpers and drives in recent weeks, but has been even more offensively aggressive since breaking his finger against Minnesota on Dec. 11.

His teammates are no longer surprised by their die-hard leader.

"It takes more than a broken finger to keep him out," point guard Derek Fisher said. "A wide receiver in the NFL with that injury might be out for the year. Kobe needs his fingers just as much, and he keeps playing."

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