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Scott Howard-Cooper

Kobe Bryant has been secretive about the treatment of his ankle, which he injured late in Game 4.
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Can Kobe play? Lakers' present, future riding on the answer

Posted Apr 26 2011 9:30AM

LOS ANGELES -- The cold reality for the Lakers is that they may be out of the loop on Kobe Bryant's ankle injury. It's not a pleasant thought for them, given everything that's on the line. But it is the truth.

Not knowing exactly what is going on with Kobe's heath status is not entirely new to the Lakers. Bryant has had surgeries without telling the Lakers until afterward. So when the Lakers reported Monday that Bryant brushed aside their wishes, and conventional wisdom, by declining to have a set of X-rays or MRIs taken, it was strange -- but not impossible to believe.

Maybe he decided the results of the tests would be meaningless, considering he would be playing in Game 5 Tuesday night against the Hornets no matter what. Or maybe he has other plans.

Either way, Bryant is limping through a first-round series for the second year in a row. It's the worst possible trend around the defending champions.

This one is not all his fault, of course. Bryant was hurt Sunday in New Orleans without a collision and without any age discrimination. He was on defense pursuing his man, Willie Green, and stepped wrong in a way that bent the foot and ankle. The same could have happened to a 20-year-old.

The prognosis, if Bryant's history is any indication, would be good. At 32 years old, Bryant remains a demon worker. Conditioning is never an issue. He played in all 82 games this season for the third time in four seasons. The only concession from Phil Jackson was to allot 33.9 minutes an outing, the lowest total in the 13 years Bryant has been a starter and the fewest since 1997-98, Kobe's second season in the league.

Bryant increasingly has made comments about adjusting his game in the ongoing quest to take Father Time off the dribble. But, whatever he does, nothing changes the fact that the Lakers need to nurse him now at a time teams need their superstars at a peak level. That's an unsettling pattern that looms heading into a future that will continue to center on Bryant.

It was only hours before Game 4 that Jackson, asked about Bryant's health compared to the knee and finger problems of a year ago, said: "I think he's managed it in very good form. I guess that's the best word to use -- he's managed it. He paces himself. He does a tremendous amount of therapy and weight training to get ready for these series. Now it's here, now he's ready to go."

Hours later, Bryant was leaving New Orleans Arena on crutches.

The latest as of Monday night? There is no latest. Bryant did not talk to the media at practice, but Jackson said Bryant is expected to play tonight as the 2-2 series returns to Staples Center. Kobe's said about the same before the Lakers flew home from New Orleans.

For all the constant speculation about whether Andrew Bynum will stay healthy enough to contribute in the playoffs, the issue keeps turning to Bryant. Everything for the Lakers hinges on Bryant. If they can't ditch the Hornets with their best player healthy, what happens if he is laboring through Game 5?

Throwing him at Chris Paul on occasion would have been a logical possibility with Paul coming off a commanding showing Sunday, just as Jackson did to knock the New Orleans star out of rhythm for Game 2. But now? Good luck with that.

"It's going to take a lot to stop me to play," Bryant said Sunday.

The Lakers are counting on it. Their future depends on it.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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