The rash of injuries to Lakers point guards that has afflicted starters, backups and fill-ins alike struck Kobe Bryant on Thursday, the All-Star learning he will miss about six weeks with a broken bone in his left knee.
Bryant initially shrugged off the injury he suffered Tuesday in the third quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies as a hyperextended knee, but an MRI exam showed he had broken the lateral tibial plateau. He stayed in the game after conversing with trainer Gary Vitti.
Bryant's injury comes only six games into his comeback from the torn left Achilles' tendon that had sidelined him since April. He averaged 13.8 points, 6.3 assists and 5.7 turnovers in the six games but was starting to resemble his old form in recent games, dunking and making a 28-foot three-point basket against the Grizzlies.
"You hate it for Kobe, he's worked so hard getting back," Lakers Coach Mike D'Antoni said. "He was coming on. His shot percentage kept getting better and his turnovers kept getting less."
Forced to cross out another point guard after Steve Nash (back), Steve Blake (elbow) and Jordan Farmar (hamstring) had already been lost, the Lakers penciled in Xavier Henry as their starter Friday against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Staples Center. Henry has averaged 9.6 points but only one assist, the latter figure low even for a shooting guard.
"I'm not going to say it's difficult, but it's different," Henry said of the adjustment to playing point guard. Shooting guard Jodie Meeks and swingman Nick Young also could help Henry with some of the ballhandling duties.
D'Antoni acknowledged the Lakers may have to sign a point guard to fill their open roster spot. Among the free-agent possibilities are former Lakers Darius Morris and Chris Duhon as well as Leandro Barbosa.
Farmar is the closest of the true point guards to a return, expected back in about a week. Blake could be out about another five weeks with a torn ligament in his right elbow, and the Lakers announced Thursday that Nash would be sidelined for another month with the nerve root irritation in his back that has kept him out since Nov. 10.
"It's just sad. It's sad," Henry said of his injured teammates. "All you can do is feel for these guys. We know how hard [Bryant] worked to get to this point, and for that to happen, it's tough. I'm sure he'll work just as hard to get back as soon as possible, and he'll be ready."
Bryant was injured less than a month after being rewarded with a two-year, $48.5-million contract extension.
It was the latest jarring development in a season filled with now-you-have-him, now-you-don't turns.
"We were playing at a certain way without him," Young said of Bryant. "Then he comes back and we started to play another way, started to get into the groove and get comfortable. Now they hit us with this — no point guard, no Kobe — but still we've got to jell and play for him and each other."
Bryant didn't seem to think his knee injury was serious at first when he slipped after posting up Memphis' Tony Allen, rubbing the area and standing in one spot for several minutes before continuing to play and finishing the game with 21 points.
It was characteristic resolve from a player who hobbled to the free-throw line to make a pair of foul shots after tearing his Achilles' against the Golden State Warriors on April 12.
Vitti said Bryant's former injury was "completely non-related" to his new setback.
But Dr. Alan Beyer, executive medical director of Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, said Bryant's Achilles' injury and subsequent rehabilitation might have made him more susceptible to the knee injury.
"It's a fracture of a bone that had a little bit of insufficiency in terms of its calcium content and strength because it wasn't subject to the usual stresses placed on a limb by a professional basketball player," said Beyer, speaking generally because he was not treating Bryant.
Beyer described the six-week timetable for Bryant's return as "very realistic," with one caveat.
"The question is, is the whole lower extremity going to be pro basketball level six weeks from now in terms of the demands placed on it by someone of his caliber?" Beyer said.
D'Antoni said he believed Bryant would come back strong.
"He's a tough guy," D'Antoni said. "I think he'll be back in six weeks and he'll be hunting for some bear."
Bryant had used the term "bear hunt" to describe his efforts to return from his Achilles' injury in a nod to the Jay Z lyric, "If you see me in a fight with a bear, pray for the bear."
Down to their emergency point guard, the Lakers are rooting for good health all around these firstname.lastname@example.org
Pincus is a Times correspondent.