Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, front, is fouled by Hornets center Emeka Okafor… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
The injured ankle that Kobe Bryant refused to show doctors was put on display for the New Orleans Hornets on Tuesday night, and now they know.
It's swollen with sorcery. It's twisted with drama. It's black and blue and Kobe all over.
Bryant was too injured to lead the Lakers to Game 5 survival? He suckered the Hornets into believing it just long enough to dunk on their glistening heads, shoot over their weary arms and pass around their knocking knees.
Two days ago, after apparently spraining his left ankle in the final minutes of the Game 4 loss in New Orleans, Bryant acted as if he couldn't walk.
On Tuesday, after a slow start, he literally flew, scoring 19 points with four assists in leading the Lakers to a 106-90 victory and three-games-to-two lead.
"We're not all built the same way," Bryant said with a sly smile. "It's the beauty of modern medicine."
Not everyone appreciated the theater.
"That's what he does," said Hornets Coach Monty Williams. "All that talk about his ankle, it didn't look like his ankle was hurting."
There were six Lakers in double figures, Andrew Bynum added 10 rebounds, the struggling champions helped each other on defense enough to slow Chris Paul down to 20 points — it was the sort of team effort that is required against these pesky Hornets.
But on this night, the room was owned by Bryant, who limped up on the moment and then stole it in a stunning sprint.
"It was a little stiff," Bryant said of the ankle. "But it loosened up."
A little stiff? He began the evening hobbling into Staples Center. He spent the pregame warmups throwing up careful shots with the tiniest of jumps. He shuffled through a first quarter that ended with him on the bench wrapped in towels, no shots, no rebounds, Lakers trailing by nine, his city in a slow panic.
When asked what he thought about Bryant in that first quarter, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson did not mince words.
Said Jackson: "Better get him off the floor, he's a liability."
Said Bryant: "Liability is a strong word."
But then, well, it was as if Bryant tore off the ankle bandage and wrapped it around the Hornets' necks. His surge began with a thunderous dunk late in the second quarter, and continued with a spectacular soaring, left-handed slam in the third quarter. It ended with the fans, for one of the first times this season, actually chanting "MVP" like they really meant it.
Does this further cement Bryant's reputation as a warrior? With no doctor confirming the extent of the injury suffered late Sunday, who knows?
Does this further cement Bryant's reputation for being all Hollywood? Those test results have long since been positive.
Bryant began his encouragement of the Hornets when he conducted his Game 4 postgame interview from a trainer's room, then left the New Orleans Arena on crutches. He added to the drama Monday when he refused to undergo an MRI exam that would have confirmed the extent of the injury.
It is puzzling that the Lakers did not require him to see a doctor, seeing as his ankles are among the franchise's most important assets.
But then, is life with Bryant anything less than puzzling?
"I didn't think it was broken," Bryant said, explaining his shunning of an MRI exam. "And if it was, it wouldn't matter anyway."
It looked like a bad decision early on Tuesday, with his low point occurring with 3:50 left in the second quarter, when Trevor Ariza was running down on a fastbreak and Bryant knew he couldn't run with him so he simply grabbed him for the foul. But Ariza kept running, scored on a layup, the officials counted the basket, and Ariza converted the free throw to give the Hornets a four-point led.
Bryant was furious. And then he was spectacular. Exactly 19 seconds later, he brought the crowd to its feet in roaring relief with a right-handed dunk, and neither the Hornets nor this game was ever the same.
"It got the crowd going, and it seemed to spark him," Jackson said of the dunk. "That was a statement."
And Bryant was just getting started. Soon he hit a driving layup over three Hornets, then a running jump shot, then another driving layup with seven seconds remaining in the quarter to give the Lakers a 54-51 halftime lead — a lead they never lost.
It was all so surprising, yet all so typical. Just listen to Jackson before the game, almost predicting it, saying, "I'm going to anticipate he's going to rise to the occasion. He always has a hole card."
This time it was aces, and now his team holds all the cards. In a series during which the Lakers have lost all air of invincibility, they have at least regained the percentages, as NBA teams that win the fifth game of a 2-all series have ended up winning the series 83% of the time.
So heading back to New Orleans for Game 6 Thursday night, the Hornets can only hope for some luck, some destiny, and for Bryant to not injure the other ankle.