The Los Angeles Lakers narrowly defeated the Golden State Warriors by a final score of 118-116 on April 12, keeping their playoff hopes alive by the slimmest of margins. But the victory came at a heavy cost as Kobe Bryant limped off the floor in the fourth quarter after injuring his left knee and appearing to tweak his bothersome left foot in the game's late stages.
But then the news got much, much worse:
The Lakers were able to pull out the win, thanks in large part to a 50-16 free-throw attempt advantage, but it's safe to assume that they don't want to find out how many more crucial contests they can win without their best player.
Before succumbing to injury, Bryant had been enduring an up-and-down game. He started poorly, going scoreless in the first quarter and struggling to find his rhythm before halftime. But with rabid determination and a few deep threes, Bryant dragged the Lakers back into the game.
Kobe didn't sound optimistic after the game, and he even took to Twitter to share the combination of frustration and fortitude we'd expect from him.
The details of his injury are still unconfirmed, but if the unthinkable really has happened and Bryant is going to miss significant time, L.A.'s long-term prognosis is completely up in the air. For now, though, the Lakers are focusing on their immediate future. With Bryant sidelined, the Lakers' chances of survival are greatly diminished.
In fact, if this latest injury proves to be the straw that breaks the Mamba's back, the Lakers' remaining schedule could mean they're in real trouble.
L.A. has two games left, and neither of them figure to be particularly easy:
With the San Antonio Spurs coming to Los Angeles on April 14 and the Houston Rockets visiting on April 17, the Lakers will finish out the season against a pair of playoff teams. If they're lucky, San Antonio will be resting the bulk of its veterans.
But Houston is still chasing the Warriors, whose lead over the Rockets for the No. 6 seed in the West fell to just a half-game. They've got no reason to take it easy on the Lakers.
Theoretically, the Lakers' top-end talent should allow them to persevere with or without Bryant. But the whole has been far less than the sum of the high-priced parts all season long, so there's little reason to think that Bryant's absence would somehow cause the Lakers to suddenly realize their potential.
The biggest story is obviously Bryant's future. If an upcoming MRI reveals he has truly suffered a torn Achilles tendon, his career could very well be in jeopardy. Without knowing more, it's only fair to focus on what's immediately ahead of the Lakers.
Unfortunately, without Bryant, the team's short-term prognosis is similarly dire.
Nobody else on the team is going to gut out 48-minute stints in the face of nagging injuries. Nobody else is going to carry the offense as both a scorer and facilitator. And nobody else is going to strike fear into opponents on the strength of his reputation alone.
Without Bryant, the Lakers may also finish an epically disappointing 2012-13 season without a playoff berth.