Reigning NBA MVP Kobe Bryant on Monday told reporters in Los Angeles that his injured back should not prevent him from playing in Wednesday night's Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinal series between the Jazz and his Lakers.
It's news that should come as no great surprise to the Jazz.
Some from Utah, after all, claimed Monday they were not even aware he was hurt in Sunday's Game 4, and others didn't seem to be buying the extent of pain suggested by Bryant's various displays of agony during the Jazz's overtime win.
"I didn't know," said Andrei Kirilenko, Utah's primary late-game defender on Bryant, who twisted the back on his second shot of the game and was bothered by resulting muscle spasms. "It wouldn't have changed anything, though."
"I thought he twisted his ankle or something on A.K. (Kirilenko)," Deron Williams added. "I didn't see anything else."
Asked when he realized Bryant was hurt, Ronnie Brewer who guards Bryant early in games turned to Williams and posed a question of his own.
"D-Will how many shots did Kobe end up shooting?" he asked.
"Thirty-three," Williams responded.
Even when it was pointed out that Bryant a 51.3 percent shooter in his first seven postseason games this year had made just 13 of those 33 attempts, Brewer still wasn't sold.
"He didn't stop shooting," he said, "so obviously I thought he wasn't hurt that bad. He didn't sit out, or pass the ball."
Asked when he knew, All-Star Carlos Boozer said, "I didn't see the replays until after the game was over with, when he was limping back and forth.
"When he had the ball in his hands," Boozer added, "it seemed like he was all right. ... It didn't seem like he had too much back pain at that point in time."
So it supposedly went unnoticed by the Jazz when someone on the Laker sideline applied a wrap to Bryant's back.
And that he was resting on the floor when not playing.
Kirilenko claimed to not know even when Bryant crumbled late in the game, wincing with pain.
"I didn't even see him," said Kirilenko, who was on Bryant for that particular overtime play. "I just walked back and, like, I didn't really pay attention."
Eventually, with time, and prodding, Brewer did confess that the Jazz had a clue much earlier.
"I heard at halftime that he hurt his back, and he was in pain," he said.
"But," Brewer added, "he still was aggressive, he still was taking shots, still wasn't passing the ball, still finished with 33 points. So, even if he was hurt, he's still an amazing player."
That's the Jazz's story, then.
And they're (mostly) sticking to it.
By extension, the Jazz also maintain they didn't play Bryant who was applying electrical stimulus to his back and standing throughout a brief postgame news conference any differently Sunday.
"No," Boozer said. "Not at all. You know, we played Kobe like he's Kobe."
They also insist they'll do nothing differently Wednesday, no matter whether he's at full strength or something much less.
"I will try to play like (Sunday) you know, kind of step a little bit back, force him to shoot the ball through the hand, and avoid those layups," Kirilenko said. "Because I think he's way more dangerous when he goes in, creates those fouls and tries to finish ... rather than just shooting unless he got hot, and just started making those shots he was missing."
As for aid from teammates, Kirilenko and Brewer both suggested it remains requisite.
"Even if he's at 75 percent," Brewer said, "he's still capable of being one of the top players in the NBA."
"You still need help on him," Kirilenko added. "He's such a good player, you need to make him feel uncomfortable every time, make him feel like he has two, three defenders on him."
And the Jazz have no doubt that need will be present Wednesday.
"Kobe's gonna play," said Boozer, a Team USA teammate of Bryant's. "I don't think he's gonna be any different. When he has the ball in his hands, he's gonna be the same guy he's been, even if he can't jump as high. He has the same mentality. That's the biggest thing about Kobe Bryant: He has the same mindset, no matter what's ailing on his body.
"Kobe Bryant's gonna be Kobe Bryant," Boozer added. "We all expect him to have the kind of game he's always been having, whether he shoots over 30 times or not. For us, we're gonna prepare for him like he's 100 percent, like we always do."
Good plan, Jazz coach Jerry Sloan suggested after watching Bryant score at least 33 in each of the first four games of the tied-at-two, best-of-seven series.
"I learned lesson a long time ago," he said Monday, referencing one of Utah's two NBA Finals game losses to the Chicago Bulls. "We tried to tell our guys Michael Jordan was sick."If (Bryant) puts his uniform on and plays, don't worry about him being hurt," Sloan added. "You better get ready to play the guy, because he's a great player. He's got the ability to bury you, in a lot of different ways. That's what those guys can do. If you're looking over there thinking you're gonna have an easy time, that's where the problems come."
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