LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant was supposed to be injured.
He rolled his left ankle late in a Game 4 loss to the Hornets, and although he came back and played, it seemed serious afterward. Bryant skipped the customary trip to the podium for the postgame press conference, and instead did his interviews from the training table to save the steps. Later, he was seen leaving the arena on crutches.
None of that would matter, however, in terms of Bryant playing in Game 5 on Tuesday. And not only did he play, but as we've come to expect from him in these situations, he largely performed as though the injury weren't an issue.
Bryant threw down a thunderous slam dunk over Emeka Okafor in the second quarter that brought the crowd to its feet, and energized the Lakers on the way to a 106-90 victory, and with it, a three games to two lead in the best-of-7 series.
We knew Bryant would play; if he has all of his limbs attached, that's pretty much how it's going to go in the postseason. The only question was how effective he would be, and whether the injury might limit him to the point where his presence on the court would do more harm than good. We didn't have to wait too long for the answer.
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After a slow first quarter, one where Bryant didn't record a field-goal attempt and was torched on the defensive end by Trevor Ariza for 10 points, Bryant came alive in the second. The bench had gotten L.A. back into it by opening the period with a 10-0 run, which erased the Hornets' nine-point advantage. Bryant got warmed up by knocking down a couple of mid-range jumpshots, and then came the dunk that will be shown on a constant loop on your favorite sports highlight show for at least the next 24 hours.
"I just had a lane to the basket," Bryant said of his spectacular play. "It looked like [Okafor] was going to challenge me at the rim, and I accepted the challenge."
Did he ever.
The play unfolded as Ariza left Bryant to give help defensively on Pau Gasol in the post. Gasol passed it to Bryant just inside the three-point arc, and Bryant needed just a single dribble with his left hand before going airborne and throwing down just a monster of a slam dunk over Okafor.
"It got the crowd going," Phil Jackson said afterward. "It seemed to spark him. It was at a point of, 'that's enough,' so I think that was a big statement."
Bryant might have had enough of the Hornets hanging around, or he might have just channeled his frustration from the previous sequence, when he tried to give a foul on Ariza on the floor to prevent an easy layup, but was late in doing so. The result was a three-point play.
Whatever his inspiration, Bryant said the play wasn't necessarily a message to the Hornets. But it might have been one to his teammates instead.
"It's a message for us that this is important," Bryant said. "It's time to raise up and do what we've got to do. They know I save those; I don't have much of those left."
The Hornets, as you might imagine, were less than thrilled with all the talk of Bryant miraculously overcoming his injury.
"That's what he does," head coach Monty Williams said. "You know, all this talk about his ankle ... did he look like his ankle was hurting? OK, then. So that's why I don't even get into all that. It is what it is. He made a spectacular play."
Chris Paul wasn't having any of the injury talk, either.
"I didn't see him limp one time," Paul said. "Did you?"
When told that Bryant might have looked a little slow in the first quarter, Paul's response was thick with sarcasm: "Did he? What game were you watching?"
"He's a great player," Paul added. "He's played through injuries time and time again. When they threw the ball up, I didn't even think about his ankle. I'm sure he didn't either."
Bryant seemingly didn't think of it at all leading up to this one. He refused to get an X-ray or an MRI to check the extent of the damage, and listening to his explanation, the line of thinking actually makes a little bit of sense. Especially to anyone familiar with driving around in L.A. traffic.
"Well, I was moving OK, I didn't feel like it was broke or anything like that," Bryant said. "If it was, it wouldn't matter anyway. I would have played anyway. So, waste of time, to go all the way up there and do that, and then sit in the 405 [freeway] traffic for two hours."
Bryant also seemed amused by everyone's interest in whether he would get those tests done.
"I don't know why you guys are so concerned about the MRI," he said. "It's not like I would have told you the results anyway."
The most important results to Bryant, of course, were the ones after this victory. He walked into his postgame interview without a limp, and with a 3-2 lead in the series. And as for the way he so rapidly recovered from an injury that would have likely limited many others, Bryant summed it up by saying something that comes across as more than a little bit of an understatement when discussing a player of Bryant's abilities.
"We all ain't built the same way," he said.
As the series shifts back to New Orleans for Game 6, the only thing truly injured is the Hornets' chance to advance.