Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, left, shoots over New Orleans center Emeka Okafor… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Take all the criticism of Kobe Bryant — shoots too much, hard on his teammates, smiles once a generation — and crumple it into a wad the size of a basketball.
After all, the guy plays hard. And hurt.
Bryant had 19 points and two dunks suitable for framing as he poked and prodded the Lakers to a 106-90 victory Tuesday over the New Orleans Hornets at Staples Center.
Bryant somehow shot better with one good ankle (eight for 13, 62%) than he did the first four games (42%) as the Lakers took a 3-2 lead in the first-round playoff series.
If the Lakers win Game 6 in New Orleans on Thursday, they won't play again until next Monday.
They can thank Bryant for the renewal of momentum, or hope, or whatever you want to call it.
He walked out of New Orleans Arena on a pair of aluminum crutches on Sunday night and appeared to be walking stiffly when he arrived a couple of hours before Game 5.
To the end, he rebuffed the team's demand that he get an MRI exam and X-rays.
Hey, whatever works, apparently.
"Did it look like his ankle was hurting?" New Orleans Coach Monty Williams said sarcastically.
Out of nowhere, as the Lakers languished yet again against the undermanned Hornets, Bryant drove down the middle and dunked over center Emeka Okafor in the second quarter.
"It looked like he was going to challenge me at the rim and I just accepted the challenge," Bryant said. "[Teammates] know I save those. I don't have a lot of those left anymore."
In the third quarter, as the Lakers started to advance from a 54-51 halftime edge, Bryant flew past Trevor Ariza and beat Carl Landry for a dunk.
Worth mentioning: It was left-handed.
"It was a little stiff, but it loosened up," Bryant said of his ankle. "The more I played the looser it got."
Bryant soon added a double-pump layup after slicing through Landry and Okafor.
"He played young," forward Ron Artest said.
Said Ariza: "Some injury."
Bryant played almost 29 minutes. He wasn't the only effective one on the Lakers.
Andrew Bynum had 18 points and 10 rebounds, shoving himself through the Hornets' undersized front line. Pau Gasol had 16 points and eight rebounds, climbing back into the good graces of Lakers fans. Lamar Odom had 13 points and seven rebounds after being a virtual no-show in Game 4.
Second-chance points were an embarrassment for the Lakers in Game 4. Not so in Game 5: Lakers 22, Hornets 2.
The Lakers also crushed the Hornets in rebounds, 42-25, after a feeble Game 4 effort.
"I thought everybody played a little bit more purposeful," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said.
The Hornets had only three players in double-figure scoring: Ariza (22 points), Marco Belinelli (21) and Chris Paul (20, along with 12 assists)
Jackson honestly didn't know what he would get from Bryant, who did a little dribbling at the morning shoot-around but nothing else of significance.
If there could have been a worse possible start for the Lakers, it would be hard to find.
Bryant looked like little more than a decoy as the Lakers trailed, 32-23, the Hornets making an amazing 13 of 16 shots (81.3%) in the first quarter.
Paul's eight assists in the quarter tied a Lakers' playoff record for an opponent in any quarter.
Ariza had his way with Bryant, driving past him on command to score 10 points on four-for-four shooting. Bryant didn't look physically capable of staying with him.
Then the second quarter rolled around. Worse yet for the Hornets, there was still a third and fourth to be played.
As insurance for depth at guard, Trey Johnson, a recent Development League pickup, was on the Lakers' active roster instead of center Theo Ratliff.
He wasn't needed.
Bryant had it under control all along. Everybody else was simply along for the ride.