The Los Angeles Lakers have looked much more promising in recent weeks as they've made a push for the playoffs. It didn't take long, however, for yet another potential challenge to surface.
Kobe Bryant suffered a scary injury his last time out, but Los Angeles may still have its superstar guard in the lineup Friday night when it visits the Indiana Pacers.
Bryant severely sprained his left ankle on a missed game-tying shot in the closing seconds of a 96-92 loss to Atlanta on Wednesday, landing on Dahntay Jones' foot and crumpling to the ground.
Despite that, Bryant will be a game-time decision Friday as coach Mike D'Antoni said he is getting better every day. Bryant, among the league leaders with 27.5 points per contest, hasn't missed a game since the 2009-10 season.
"That's not the Kobe I know," guard Steve Nash said of the possibility of Bryant sitting out. "We'll see how he feels. ... This is his team and everyone respects him."
The Pacers expect Bryant to play.
"We'll be ready," coach Frank Vogel said. "If he goes, there's not anybody able to overcome injuries as well as he has, so we'll be ready for Kobe at full strength."
Jones wasn't called for a foul on the play, which Bryant felt was dirty because Jones slid under him. The NBA agreed that the play should have indeed drawn a foul call.
"I can't get my mind past the fact that I have to wait a year to get revenge," he said, as Los Angeles won't face Atlanta again until next season. "It's just a very, very dangerous play, especially when I'm fading away."
The Lakers (34-32) have recently found their stride in a season marked by lack of chemistry, occasional discord and injury, winning four straight and 17 of 23 prior to Wednesday. They own a half-game lead over the Jazz for eighth place in the Western Conference.
Jodie Meeks would likely figure to start if Bryant can't go. Meeks is averaging 8.0 points in 19.1 minutes per game.
Even if the hobbled Bryant plays, the Lakers may have to lean more heavily on center Dwight Howard, who has finally returned to form with 21.8 points and 16.2 rebounds over his last five contests. He averaged 15.9 points and 12.1 boards in his first 55 games.
Indiana center Roy Hibbert, like Howard, has been surging lately after some inconsistent play. Hibbert has scored 16.8 points per game while shooting 56.3 percent in his last six, compared to 10.0 and 42.0 in the previous 57.
He scored a season-high 27 with 12 rebounds in a 107-91 home win over Minnesota on Wednesday.
"You could see in his body language, he's just playing more confident," coach Frank Vogel told the team's official website. "We said all along that it was going to be a process and that he would snap out of it. He's playing well, not just tonight, but over the last few weeks."
The Pacers (40-24) need Hibbert to continue his strong production with Danny Granger out at least two more games due to knee soreness. Granger, who will have the knee re-evaluated at the end of the week, has missed all but five games and sat out four straight since that brief five-game return.
Granger didn't play in the teams' first meeting, a 79-77 Pacers road win Nov. 27. Bryant had 40 points and 10 rebounds, but the Lakers shot 31.9 percent. George Hill led Indiana with 19 points and David West added 16, 10 boards, eight assists and two blocks.
The Lakers have won three of the teams' last four matchups in Indianapolis, with Bryant averaging 30.0 points in those contests.
If Kobe Bryant misses any games, the Lakers haven't played often with the combination of players they'll have available for the foreseeable future (SMALL SAMPLE SIZE WARNING).
* Their most common lineup without Bryant OR Pau Gasol and WITH Steve Nash is Nash/Blake/Meeks/World Peace/Howard...
That lineup has played just 11 minutes together and has a net efficiency of -75.7 (44.6-120.3).
That's the WORST net efficiency (Pts/100 poss MINUS Opp pts/100 poss) for any Lakers lineup that has played more than 5 minutes this season.
* There are 2 likely scenarios if Bryant is out -- replacing him in the starting lineup with either Jodie Meeks or Steve Blake...
The Nash/Meeks/World Peace/Clark/Howard lineup has played just 7 minutes together.
The Nash/Blake/World Peace/Clark/Howard lineup has played just 1 minute together.
**Statistical support for this story from NBA.com.