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How Much Gas Will Be Left in Kobe Bryant's Tank If L.A. Lakers Make Playoffs?

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 07:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts as he walks down court during the NBA game against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on April 7, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  The Clippers defeated the Lakers 109-95. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 9, 2013

Kobe Bryant may have the mental fortitude to shoulder a tremendous responsibility and a demanding workload to carry the Los Angeles Lakers through the season's final stretch.

But his body isn't immune to feeling the culminating effects of fatigue that will leave the Mamba gasping for breath if the Lakers can defy the odds and sneak into the postseason.

There really is no good decision that coach Mike D'Antoni can make.

Not with his club facing tremendous odds in its quest to shake off months of frustrations and salvage one of the final playoff berths in the Western Conference.

The Lakers sit a half-game behind the Utah Jazz for the eighth seed. But since the Jazz hold the all powerful tiebreaker with L.A., the Lakers need more than a few things to fall in their favor over the next week.

Hoping to leave as little to chance as possible, D'Antoni is leaning on the 34-year-old Bryant to make those postseason dreams a reality. And leaning heavily at that.

 

A major workload is nothing new for Bryant. He's already tied for the fifth-most minutes per game this season, logging 38.4 of them a night.

But lately, the minutes are piling up at a ludicrous rate even by Mamba standards. Over his last four games (three of them Lakers wins), Bryant has averaged an astounding 46.1 minutes (via basketball-reference.com). He's also played at least 47 minutes in three of the four games, somewhat of a head-scratching stat considering two of those games were decided by double figures.

D'Antoni knows this is a troubling trend. "We're playing a little bit with fire," he said (according to Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com). "Normally this wouldn't happen, but we put ourselves in a hole and Kobe is our best bet going forward to win games."

There's no debating D'Antoni's last point. Bryant has been the lone constant floating through a frustrating river of injuries and inconsistencies that have marred L.A.'s once promising season.

But what are we to make of the lasting effects of trotting out Bryant with the kind of minutes that could break a man half his age? Even under the win-at-all-costs umbrella this seems a tad extreme.

 

Bryant can say, or tweet, all of the right things about his heavy usage rate.

He probably even believes that all of these minutes aren't taking their toll, perhaps a mind-over-matter outlook he inherited from former coach Phil Jackson.

But the numbers say not only is Bryant burning his reserve fuel before the playoffs even start, those reserves may already be drying up. He's shooting just 37.2 percent from the field over his last four games and has just one three-point make (against 20 attempts) over his last five.

Even a player as dominant as Bryant can only fill so many different roles. He's tasked with being the Lakers' best scorer, best set-up man and hardest worker, preferably with a similar amount of energy exerted on the defensive end.

 

But it's still not easy to criticize D'Antoni's handling of his star player. Not when there's no clear alternative available to him.

Because Utah owns the tiebreaker and a more favorable schedule down the stretch, D'Antoni can't shift his attention to the postseason. There's a strong possibility that his Lakers will be no more than spectators when the second season tips off.

So D'Antoni's left with no other option than to bank his team's playoff hopes on Bryant's ability to defy basic rules of nature, to keep drawing from a water-less well.

It's crazy, but Bryant's such a gifted player that this might actually work.

But if he can somehow will this franchise into the dance, he'll need his supporting cast to keep this from being an abbreviated stay.

His low fuel light is already flashing, and there won't be any time to stop and refill before this season is over.

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