Kobe Bryant and the Lakers may not have the legs left to stand tall

Lakers: Toast.

Even tied, 2-2, with home-court advantage intact, they’re browned on both sides with their crust trimmed off, spread with butter and jelly and just waiting to be devoured by the Thunder or whoever they play next, unless Kobe Bryant turns back into Kobe Bryant.

The Kobe we knew always went down firing.

The Kobe in Oklahoma City over the weekend looked like someone protecting an injury or injuries, coming off Game 3 when Kevin Durant shut him down at the end, and Game 4, the most ineffectual performance of his career.

It’s either that, a massive tactical blunder -- the house explanation from Bryant and Coach Phil Jackson -- or Kobe’s had a spiritual awakening like Pedro Cerrano in “Major League II,” now embraces all living things and is no longer into competition.

I’m going with the injury/injuries.

The Kobe we knew impacted his games, one way or the other.

There was no missing him, even at 19, starting his first All-Star game alongside guys he grew up watching, facing Michael Jordan, his idol.

That was the game Kobe took nine shots in his first 11 touches, or as Lakers publicist Ray Ridder noted, “two less than he took in the rookie game.”

In Saturday’s Game 4, Bryant took 10 shots and two free throws.

After shooting no free throws in Game 3, Bryant only got his two in Game 4 because Thabo Sefolosha fouled him on a 15-foot jumper.

Kobe didn’t take the ball to the basket right-handed all game, suggesting a) he was protecting his shooting hand with the broken finger, b) he can’t get to the basket on his sore right knee, or c) both.

This raises a really painful question in Lakerdom:


Jackson’s primary goal, apart from making the playoffs, is to conserve his team for the postseason.


Unfortunately for the Lakers, Jackson and the medical staff can advise but only Bryant decides when Kobe Bryant sits out.

Jackson had the same problem with Michael Jordan as the Chicago Bulls won a record 72 games in 1995-96, came back the next season with Phil announcing they wouldn’t go all-out like that again, and won 69.

Jordan, who turned 34 in 1997, played all 164 games, rejecting invitation after invitation to sit out.

Bryant, 31, played 82 games the last two seasons and had his heart set on doing it again when he suffered the avulsion fracture of the first finger of his shooting hand Dec. 11.

With the Lakers 18-3, three games ahead of the West, Bryant could have sat out, or even opted for surgery that was projected to get him back by the All-Star break.

Instead, he kept playing and kept getting his finger whacked on forays to the hoop, averaging 8.3 free throws in March and 9 in April before the playoffs.

The injury that was supposed to heal in four to six weeks hasn’t healed yet.

Of course, in the back of everyone’s mind was the assumption they could rest at season’s end.

At the end, however, with Andrew Bynum out, things unraveling and the Lakers trying to dial up their urgency, it fell to Bryant to play bad cop to Jackson’s still-whimsical cop, or as Kobe put it “keep my foot on their throat.”

Bryant averaged 40 minutes in February and 39 in March before a new problem, soreness in his right knee, forced him out April 8.

He has looked like Kobe Bryant once since, in Game 2 of this series.

He was fine in Game 3 until the fourth quarter when the 6-foot-9 Durant, who had never guarded him before, locked him down.

No one that tall should be able to guard Bryant. When Kobe got over his surprise, he should have drawn Durant out -- “put him on an island,” as players say -- and driven past him.

Instead, when Bryant attacked off the dribble, he pulled up for jumpers and Durant caught up with him.

One way or another, the Lakers aren’t going far unless everything falls in line, tactically, medically and/or spiritually.

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