Kobe Bryant is doing a banged-up job for Lakers

It all started Dec. 11, on a slow, maybe even lazy, pass from Jordan Farmar at the three-point line.

Kobe Bryant reached out for it, trying to get there before Minnesota forward Corey Brewer, but the ball was slightly deflected by Brewer and hit Bryant’s right index finger before ricocheting out of bounds.

Bryant felt a pop in the finger and bent down on one knee, experiencing the first of many painful turns his season would take.

This hasn’t been a quiet, injury-free series of months for Bryant, who played in all 105 of the Lakers’ games last season and all 103 the season before that.

Since sustaining a broken finger that night against the Timberwolves, Bryant has battled a sore ankle that sidelined him for five games in February and swelling in his right knee that kept him out of the Lakers’ last two games.

He might return today against Portland, but it’s been a pass-the-pain-reliever type of season for Bryant, 31, who hates talking about his injuries almost as much as he despises Lakers losing streaks, but has had to acknowledge them numerous times this season.

He tried to slip out a side door after watching the Lakers’ loss in Denver last Thursday and seemed disappointed when a reporter was waiting to get the details on his knee flare-up.

“Why are you asking me about injuries?” he said, rolling his eyes. Then he proceeded to make a rare admission.

“I couldn’t get enough elevation on my jump shot,” he said as his reason for sitting out.

Bryant has had that knee surgically repaired twice, in 2003 to relieve pain caused by persistent swelling and again in 2006 to clean out scar tissue and loose cartilage.

It is unclear whether he will have surgery on the knee after this season, but, indeed, his hops aren’t at their tops.

“I can’t deny it. You can see it if you go back three, four or five years,” said Minnesota Timberwolves Coach Kurt Rambis, a former Lakers assistant. “You can go back and look at the difference in the pop in his legs. To me it’s obvious it’s had an impact.”

The issues don’t end there.

When Bryant hurt his finger, he walked to the bench and winced as trainer Gary Vitti leaned over to touch it. The immediate assessment was a sprain, but it was quickly changed to an avulsion fracture, a diagnosis that turned out to be underselling the extent of the injury.

An avulsion fracture doesn’t sound like a cover-the-eyes circumstance as far as its definition — a small fragment of bone gets pulled off by a tendon — but Bryant’s finger is more than a boo-boo.

It’s so swollen that TV analyst Kevin McHale stopped mid-sentence and pointed it out while interviewing Bryant during a recent segment that went live on NBA TV. Viewers saw what is often hidden behind athletic tape and bandages — a grotesquely enlarged finger that might require surgery after the season.

It’s also had an effect on his game.

Some of his stats have improved from last season, probably a product of playing almost three more minutes per game, but he is less accurate in three facets: his overall shooting is down from 46.7% last season to 45.8%, his three-point shooting is down from 35.1% to 32.5% and his free-throw accuracy has fallen from 85.6% to 81.4%.

Furthermore, his turnovers have climbed from 2.6 a game last season to 3.2 this season.

“I think some of it’s the finger and some of it is he’s trying to make plays,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said.

Bryant is averaging 27.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and five assists after averaging 26.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.9 assists last season. He recently signed a three-year contract extension that will pay him $83.5 million on top of the $24.8 million he will make next season.

His ankle is affecting him the least of his injuries, a mishap that occurred when Lamar Odom stepped on his foot near the free-throw line while they were playing defense in an early February game against Charlotte. Bryant sat out five games because of a sore peroneal tendon, a small tendon on the outside part of the lower leg that runs behind the ankle bone.

A banged-up Bryant. A struggling Lakers team stuck in a 3-5 slump as the regular season comes to a close in a few days. Are opponents suddenly eager to play the Lakers in the playoffs? Not in Rambis’ mind.

“Do you think there’s any team in the West that wants to see the Lakers because Kobe’s a little beat up?” he said. “If the other team’s up one and there’s 10 seconds left, do you think they feel comfortable knowing that Kobe has some injuries? They still don’t want him on the floor.

“He’s one of the all-time greatest at blocking things out. Whatever it is — illness, injury, distractions, whatever — he’s always been able to come to the arena and been able to block those out and still be able to perform at a very high level.

“Every time that you catch a basketball, there’s a little sting in your finger. Every time you go to cut, there’s a little pinch in your ankle. Every time you try and elevate, there’s a little sting in your knee. To be able to let all of that go and still focus on the task at hand, that takes a special competitive individual. He’s just that guy.”