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Bryant leaves early, but Lakers beat Pacers 99-93

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 16, 2013 at 3:04 am •  Published: March 16, 2013

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — When Kobe Bryant's playing days end, perhaps he has a future in coaching.

If the transition goes as smoothly as it did Friday night, nobody will quibble.

After hobbling around on a severely sprained left ankle for one quarter, Bryant took himself out of the game and made sure he was the most valuable player on the Lakers' bench.

He exhorted his teammates to play hard, to read the defense and to take advantage of any openings they found against Indiana. He diagrammed plays and pulled players aside, coaching them up all night. Then, Dwight Howard completed a tiebreaking three-point play with 90 seconds to go, and the Lakers pulled away from Indiana for a 99-93 win.

"I'm just going to keep coaching, you know what I mean?" Bryant said, drawing laughter when asked what he would do if he missed any more time on the court. "I'm going to try and put guys in position to be successful, you know?"

Why not, given Bryant's penchant for improvising when things don't always follow the script?

At Indiana, the five-time NBA champ and two-time Finals MVP showed there's a lot more to his game than simply being durable and scoring points. He relied on his extensive film study and 17 years of dissecting NBA defenses to find weaknesses that could be exploited against the Pacers.

Eventually, all that hard work paid big dividends by getting the Lakers (35-32) arguably their most important win of the season.

"It was our best win of the season," said Metta World Peace, who had 19 points and seven rebounds in his return to Indy. "It's been an up-and-down year, not to our fans' liking as far as the record is concerned. But I would say it's our best win of the season."

While the injured Bryant didn't make the kind of impact the Lakers had hoped for as they surging toward the playoffs, he did everything he could to rally his teammates after coming up uncharacteristically short on all four of his first-quarter shots. He didn't return after the first quarter and wound up with only the 15th scoreless game in his professional career.

From the bench, Bryant was just as valuable.

He contested calls and waved teammates into the proper spots. He offered advice and support during timeouts and to those sitting beside him. At one point, he even grabbed a clipboard, drew something up and showed it Howard, who had 20 points, 12 rebounds and made the game-changing play.

Bryant, known as a remarkably quick healer who hasn't missed a game since the 2009-10 season, gallantly played less than 48 hours after turning his ankle when he landed on Dahntay Jones' foot in the waning seconds of Wednesday's loss at Atlanta.

And without him, the Lakers may not have survived against a team that came into the night with the league's No. 2 scoring defense and fifth-best home record.

"He was great, he was engaged and he wanted us to win," point guard Steve Nash said. "So we had a lot of energy over there."

Teammates and coaches fully expected Bryant to be ready after spending the past two days working in silent seclusion to return from what he described as the worst ankle sprain of his NBA career.

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