Utah’s back. Kobe Bryant says he will be, too.
A series is now a series, which meant all eyes turned to the newest MVP as he took it easy Monday, resting his back in lieu of risking further flare-ups of the kind that floored him a couple of times in Game 4.
Bryant, listed as day-to-day because of lower back spasms, says he’ll be ready Wednesday for Game 5, though it’s unclear if he’ll be fully healthy, partially healthy, somewhere in between or somewhere the Lakers don’t even want to think about.
“I’ll play. I can’t imagine it being worse than it was” Sunday night, Bryant said.
If it isn’t better, it won’t be from a lack of trying.
Bryant will be going through an active treatment cycle from now until game time -- electro-stimulation, ice, heat, massage therapy, stretching, everything but an actual back transplant.
He hurt his back while shooting a turnaround jumper on the Lakers’ second possession of Game 4, managed to score 33 points, but lost his shooting touch down the stretch, missing 11 of 13 shots in the fourth quarter and overtime of the Lakers’ 123-115 loss to the Jazz.
He acknowledged a day later that his jumping ability had been limited, in case it wasn’t obvious to the naked eye.
“I just tried to shortcut it a little bit,” he said. “I think they kind of saw that I was just basically trying to get room and shoot jump shots and not drive. A couple of times, I tried to venture in and drive to the basket, but my back just couldn’t take it.”
Even though the Lakers suddenly found themselves in a 2-2 tussle with the Jazz, it was tough to tell which battle held greater weight Monday: Lakers vs. Utah or Bryant vs. back spasms.
Coach Phil Jackson even feigned surprise that the first question from reporters was about Bryant, not the team in general.
“That’s the first question we’re going to have today in this session?” he said.
And the second, and the third, and onward from there.
It was a new injury for Bryant, who said he hadn’t dealt with back issues since he was 21, eight long years ago. The timing couldn’t be worse with Utah winning two games at home to tie the series.
The Lakers haven’t lost three consecutive games since January, when San Antonio, Dallas and Cleveland tripped them up as they were adjusting to life without Andrew Bynum.
A loss Wednesday could lead to the end of their season Friday in Utah.
Only 13 teams in NBA history have come back from 2-0 deficits to win a best-of-seven series, but Utah is challenging the long odds in such situations (a 6.2% success rate).
Jackson said he wouldn’t be surprised if Bryant began shooting in a day or two. At the same time, the Lakers coach said he couldn’t control the outcome of Bryant’s recovery.
“I’m not concerned at all,” he said. “I haven’t spent any time thinking about it. I have nothing to do with his recovery. He’s either going to recover or not recover. What I have to do is prepare this team to play.”
They could start by making more free throws.
The Lakers shot 56% from the line (14 for 25) in Game 4. Bryant made six of 10 free throws and Lamar Odom made five of 10.
“If we made a few more free throws, probably the game would have been ours and we would be in a different situation right now,” Pau Gasol said.
Also, Derek Fisher picked up two fouls in the first three minutes for a second consecutive game.
“It’s bothered us both games,” Jackson said.
The Lakers spoke with league officials about Ronny Turiaf’s flagrant foul in the second quarter of Game 4, but a suspension for Game 5 is not expected.
“You think he’d be suspended?” Jackson asked rhetorically. “That would be an amazing thing. I wouldn’t see that at all.”
Turiaf was ejected after a foul that sent Utah guard Ronnie Price crashing to the court on a drive to the basket. Price needed four stitches to close a cut above his right eye. He continued playing after a brief trip to the locker room.
Bryant was selected to the league’s all-defensive team for a third consecutive season. He was joined on the first team by Boston forward Kevin Garnett, San Antonio forward-guard Bruce Bowen, Denver center Marcus Camby and San Antonio forward Tim Duncan.
Bryant has now been on the first team six times in his 12-year career. He tied Garnett with 24 first-place votes. The all-defensive team is decided by the 30 NBA head coaches.
Fisher received a first-place vote, but finished well behind members of the first and second teams in total voting points.