Bryant key to Lakers' playoff hopes

It seems like the thing to do out here, to decry and diminish the Lakers' chance for successive championships.

Hence, I call your attention to the torn ligament in Shannon Brown's right thumb, Andrew Bynum's strained left Achilles, Jordan Farmar's strained left hamstring and Sasha Vujacic's badly sprained left ankle.

"He could miss the first round," Phil Jackson said of Vujacic the other night, following an embarrassing 16-point loss to the Clippers.

Unmentioned on the injury report, but worth notice nonetheless, is Ron Artest's suddenly blond coiffure, which he apparently consented to dye at the suggestion of DJ Mbenga. That's not a good sign, to have your supposed defensive stopper so susceptible to the backup center's suggestion. Then again, perhaps it's symptomatic of the malaise that has the Lakers -- still the most talented roster in basketball -- just 16-12 since the All-Star break. Their first-round opponents, the Oklahoma City Thunder, went 20-11 during that same stretch.

But none of that really matters. As it concerns the Lakers, one issue trumps all others. That would be the health of Kobe Bryant, who sat out the last three games of an injury-plagued season.

"It's concerning, obviously," said Pau Gasol. "The reality is, it's not the same. He's had to play through a lot this year. His health is real important to the team."

Real important?

"He's the most important part," Gasol conceded. "His health is crucial."

"I think he'll be just fine," said Jackson.

I think the coach is correct, basically. Still, in this case "fine" is a relative term. As Kobe goes, so go the Lakers. And one can't help but wonder if his compromised condition has had more of an effect on the team than the star himself.

I can't recall a player I've come to admire more; certainly not one I had disliked so intensely. For all Bryant's talent, no one has played harder for longer. No one has given the game more respect.

But now, near the end of his 14th professional season, the aura of his physical invincibility is no longer intact. He's been playing with a broken index finger on his shooting hand since Dec. 11. A sore left ankle forced him to sit out five games in February. The right knee, which has been sore since last year, was swollen enough for him to miss the last three games of the season. Of course, none of these injuries are catastrophic, but on the eve of the playoffs, one wonders if Kobe Bryant is finally getting old.

What he's doing has never been done before, playing this long, this hard, and at this level -- all before his 32nd birthday. Three great talents came straight out of high school in the mid-90s. Kevin Garnett was a rookie in '95, and on many nights looks like he's 45. Tracy McGrady, class of '97, has been done for years. Bryant now might rank as the league's second best player. But he's also played 19,517 more minutes in 588 more NBA games than LeBron James.

In regard to the all-timers, he's already played 111 more games than Jerry West, who retired at 35. As for the other player to whom he's most frequently compared: Michael Jordan played in 1,266 games (I'm giving him 13 for the '92 Dream Team). Bryant, still 31, with 1,215 games (including 19 in international competition since 2007), will surpass that total next season.

Consider Bryant in relation to other notables drafted in 1996, these numbers courtesy of Tom Hummell from STATS LLC. Steve Nash has played in 1,116 games, Ray Allen in 1,099 and Allen Iverson, 985. Jermaine O'Neal, another high school phenom, played in 938 -- and he looks to be done, too. The only guy drafted with Bryant who has played in nearly as many games as Bryant is, curiously enough, his teammate Derek Fisher, with 1,203. And though Fisher, too, has fallen off, he's played a mere 31,652 minutes -- almost 12,600 fewer than Bryant, who has logged 44,254.

Again, this has never been done before. According to the STATS numbers, Bryant has substantially outpaced the most durable figures in the game. Before the age of 32, Magic Johnson had played in 1,060 games. Kevin Garnett was at 974, and A.C. Green at 940, Scottie Pippen at 946 and Karl Malone at 895.

So, back to the point. Jackson conceded there was a difference between today's Bryant today and the '07 or '08 vintage.

"The inability to just go over people and shoot the ball with people on him," he said. "I think that's something he has adjusted to."

But have the rest of the Lakers? You're about to find out. Jackson, for his part, says the issue isn't Bryant's durability, but rather "connectedness." "The critical element" of playoff basketball, he said, was "the ability to play in unison with one mind."

One mind? I flashed on Artest as a blond.

OK. Let's see how connected the Lakers are if Kobe isn't right.