Kobe Bryant (24) grabs his ankle before coming out of the game at the end of the second half against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on March 13, 2013. (Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports)
ATLANTA (USA Today) -- The Los Angeles Lakers' playoff push just got a whole lot harder.
Kobe Bryant suffered a severe left ankle sprain Wednesday night in a 96-92 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, rising up for a jumper from the right baseline with three seconds left that would have tied the game but coming down on the foot of Dahntay Jones. X-rays were negative, but Bryant told reporters it was his worst sprain since the 2000 season and a Lakers official confirmed to USA TODAY Sports he will be out indefinitely.
"First and foremost, the officials really need to protect shooters," Bryant said of the contact with Jones. "You just can't go into shooters. That's a dangerous play."
It couldn't come at a worse time.
The Lakers (34-32) had won 17 of 22 games entering Wednesday's game and moved into playoff position in the Western Conference. Not only was Bryant ignoring Father Time in his 17th season to turn in a spectacular season, but fellow stars Dwight Howard and Steve Nash had finally grown comfortable in coach Mike D'Antoni's system and the chemistry that was missing in the opening months had clearly improved.
Losing Bryant, however, could change all that. Not only had Bryant accounted for more than a quarter of the Lakers' offense this season (his 27.4-point-per-game average is third in the league), he also had led the emotional charge by guaranteeing a playoff berth back on Feb. 21 - when the Lakers were 26-29.
His recent string of late-game heroics had continued against the Hawks, as his deep three-pointer with 18 seconds left cut the lead to one. On March 8 against the Toronto Raptors, Bryant buried three three-pointers in the final 100 seconds of regulation to force overtime in the Lakers win in what was one of many vintage performances for the future Hall of Famer. In his absence, it's likely that reserve guard Jodie Meeks would become the starting shooting guard. The Lakers, whose final 16 games are split evenly between home and road, play at the Indiana Pacers on Friday.
Jones defended his actions on Twitter.
Tape doesn't lie. Ankle was turned on the floor after the leg kick out that knocked him off balance. I would never try to hurt the man
- Dahntay (@dahntay1) March 14, 2013