LOS ANGELES (AP) — Kobe Bryant’s 17th NBA season likely ended on an innocent move past a defender toward the hoop.
He felt a pop as he pushed off his left foot. The pain made him think somebody kicked him.
The Los Angeles Lakers are all but certain Bryant tore his Achilles tendon Friday night on that ordinary step in his extraordinary career.
“I made a move that I’ve made a million times, and it just popped,” he said solemnly, leaning on crutches in the Lakers’ locker room after a 118-116 win over Golden State.
The fourth-leading scorer in NBA history probably will miss the postseason for just the second time, even if Los Angeles hangs on to the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoff race without him. The 34-year-old who has spent half his life in a Lakers uniform realizes everybody will wonder if his career will ever be the same.
Moments after he went down, Bryant vowed to get back up.
“I know I can do this,” said Bryant, who’s averaging 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 6.0 assists. “It’s fueling me. It’s fueling me. I can feel it already.”
Still wearing his gold game uniform, Bryant appeared to fight back tears while he thought about the upcoming final days of the Lakers’ tumultuous season. After a terrible start and numerous missteps along the way, Los Angeles (42-37) is one game ahead of the Utah Jazz, who hold the tiebreaker, for the final playoff spot in the West with two games to play.
Bryant called it the most disappointing injury of his career “by far.”
“We worked so hard to put ourselves in position and control our fate,” he said. “I certainly have done a lot of work to prepare myself. It’s just bad luck.”
Bryant, who scored 34 points despite hyperextending his left knee early in the second half, hit two free throws after apparently tearing his tendon with 3:08 to play, tying the game before hobbling to the locker room.
His teammates then rallied past the wilting Warriors, with Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard getting big baskets down the stretch before Steve Blake’s go-ahead free throws in the final minutes.
The win kept the Lakers in control of their playoff destiny, still in the running for the franchise’s 16th postseason trip during Bryant’s career, they’ll probably have to do it without the five-time NBA champion in uniform, assuming an MRI on Saturday confirms the Lakers’ diagnosis of a torn tendon.
“I’m going to be there still,” Bryant said. “I can’t be with them out there on the floor, but I can use my intellect to try to break down film and help them see things they might not see.”
But after playing heavy minutes all season while fighting several minor injuries, one of the most durable stars in NBA history finally incurred an injury even he couldn’t play through.
“I can’t walk,” he said, with only a trace of a smirk. “I tried to maybe just put pressure on my heel, see if I could do it that way, but there was just nothing there.”
Achilles’ tendon injuries can require many months of rehabilitation and recovery, depending on their severity, and the 34-year-old Bryant has enormous mileage on his legs. The NBA’s No. 3 scorer this season has played more than 38 minutes per game, more than any teammate and more than any player in the league over 30.
While others’ thoughts immediately went past the Lakers’ immediate future to Bryant’s career, he swiftly shot down any notion he might be finished. Bryant was already thinking about rehabilitation from an injury that typically requires several months of recovery.
“I’ve never had to deal with something like this,” he said. “It is a new experience for me. Obviously, there have been a bunch of players that have had the same injury. All I can do is look at them, see what they’ve done, and see who had more success coming back quicker and healthier. See what they did, and try to improve on that.”
Bryant said his teammates must “just continue to play. We’ve been dealing with injuries all year. I’ll do what I can, watching film and communicating to the guys the best form of attacking certain teams, and go from there.”
The Lakers’ future is tied up in Bryant’s health even beyond his vaunted scoring and leadership: He will make nearly $30.5 million next season in the final year of his deal. Los Angeles’ uncertain offseason just got even weirder, with Howard’s impending unrestricted free agency still looming largest in the mix.
Bryant has been ferociously competitive while trying to keep the Lakers’ playoff hopes afloat. While Gasol and Steve Nash have missed long stretches of play with injuries, and while Howard struggled to get to full strength after last year’s back surgery, Bryant played through a sprained ankle and countless minor woes, missing only two games with injuries that could sideline other players for weeks.
After playing all 48 minutes while scoring 47 points in Portland on Wednesday, Bryant pushed the Lakers relentlessly forward on one good leg against the playoff-bound Warriors. Golden State got 47 points from Stephen Curry in a dynamic performance, but Bryant led a 9-0 run by hitting consecutive 3-pointers to tie it at 107 with 3:47 left.
“I hate it for Kobe,” said first-year Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, who has marveled at Bryant’s toughness while discounting suggestions Bryant was playing too much. “I hate it for us. I hate it for L.A., but you have to close ranks. There’s no going back now. … He’s just an unbelievable player with a heart, and it is unbelievable.”
Bryant didn’t know whether his heavy workload contributed to the injury.
“Who knows? It was all necessary,” he said. “It’s just a freak situation, I guess.”
Bryant’s teammates had little to say to him in the locker room, many still in disbelief over the latest injury woe to befall this high-priced roster.
“He’s the greatest competitor, and he’s been that all season long, all through his career,” said Gasol, who had 26 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in his sixth career triple-double. “He’s been an example for us throughout all this. He showed character. He showed heart, and that’s what we’re going to need from now on.”