Just when Kobe Bryant was starting to quiet his critics, who were calling for him to sit out and rest his fractured right index finger, his tender left ankle could be the injury that finally gets to him.
"It was just hurting today," Bryant said Wednesday night after scoring a season-low five points on 2-for-12 shooting. "Tried to battle through it tonight. It was just stiff. Stiff and tight."
Bryant, who was walking with a limp after the Lakers' 99-97 victory against the Bobcats and visibly wincing in pain during his postgame comments, said the ankle was bothering him before the game even started and its condition declined further when Lamar Odom landed on his left foot just before halftime.
"It just made it worse," Bryant said. "It just set it back to square one."
Bryant left the court to head to the locker room with 12.5 seconds remaining in the second quarter after Odom aggravated the left ankle that Bryant rolled Friday in Philadelphia in a third-quarter collision with Elton Brand.
The ankle limited Bryant in Boston on Sunday, especially affecting his lift. After the game Bryant joked that his elevator usually goes up to the 12th floor but was stuck on the seventh floor against the Celtics.
He seemed to be on the mend Monday in Memphis, scoring 44 points on 16-for-28 shooting.
"He couldn't get off the ground, couldn't get any push off of that ankle tonight," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "He got out there in the third quarter and kind of kept the team in balance, kept us operating out there a little bit."
Jackson played Bryant for the first 3:10 of the fourth quarter before taking him out because of how Bryant's ankle was limiting his play. The Lakers were able to build an eight-point lead with Bryant on the bench, but Jackson subbed him back in when their cushion dwindled to four with 2:55 remaining.
"I really didn't want to have to bring him back but when they closed the gap there in the last two minutes, I think I had to," Jackson said.
"I'll be fine," Bryant said, adding he would be headed home to receive further treatment on the ankle.
Dave McMenamin is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com