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Lakers History: Kobe Sinks Clutch Free Throws After Tearing Achilles
Even at 34 and with a hand full of rings, the Black Mamba was never satisfied.
Gunning for the 8th seed in a stacked Western Conference, Kobe Bryant had played 226 out of a possible 240 minutes in five games in April. Mike D’Antoni’s banged up squad had won 8 of their last 9 games to get back in the playoff picture.
The night of the 13th wasn’t any different, with a frisky Golden State team also gearing up for the playoffs.
And despite hyperextending his knee in the first half – and nursing a sprained ankle – Kobe stayed on the court every possible second until a run-of-the-mill drive to the hoop that would change the trajectory of his career forever.
Bean had shot 9-for-21 from the field until that point and led the purple and gold effort with 32 points. That fatidic penetration drew a foul call from the officials, but the contact from Harrison Barnes was nowhere near the injury:
“I made a move that I've made a million times, and it just popped,” he said after the game.
Bryant tore the Achilles tendon in his left leg and crumbled to the floor in pain with 3:08 to go in regulation.
What happened next would probably get rejected if presented as a Hollywood script for being a little too dramatic:
Kobe not only got up, but he also walked all the way to the home bench on the opposite side of the court – with only minimal help from Pau Gasol.
After being briefly treated by head athletic trainer Gary Vitti, Bryant slowly made his way back to the charity stripe in what seemed like an endless procession of baby steps.
There, he sank both free throws to tie the game, and after the Lakers fouled on the inbounds play, marched back to the locker room.
“I think it’s his gutsiest moment,” Vitti said.
Led by Jack Nicholson from his courtside seat, STAPLES Center serenaded him with a deafening standing ovation. His season was officially over along with the most dominantly mature phase of his story-book career.
“He walked off stoically, but in the locker room he became very emotional as he realized what had happened to him,” Vitti said. “But when his wife Vanessa and his little girls walked in he stopped because he didn’t want those girls to see their father that way. That was Kobe the human being.”
In 2016, Bryant told ESPN that in the moment he even tried to devise a plan to keep playing. Vitti patiently explained to him that it was impossible.
“I just tried to buy a little bit of time,” he said. “I was trying to figure out a way to play around it because if I can walk on my heel, maybe I can get around it because I don’t have to get up on my toe. I had worked so hard to get us there. I’ll be damned if we lose this f------ game and all that hard work goes to s---. I tried to finish the job.”
A pair of key buckets from Gasol and Dwight Howard plus two free-throws from Steve Blake in the final minute allowed the Lakers to win the game, surviving a 47-point masterpiece from Stephen Curry in what in hindsight was a passing of the torch moment.
L.A. would go on to win its remaining 2 games before being swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round. A little over 2 years later, the Warriors won the first of three rings with Steve Kerr at the helm.
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