Updated at: 03/16/2013 4:09 AM
By PAUL NEWBERRY
(AP) ATLANTA - Kobe Bryant has had plenty of calls go his way during 17 seasons in the NBA, so it would be easy to dismiss his complaints in the ongoing debate about how he sprained his ankle.
That would be a gross injustice.
Dahntay Jones’ play wasn’t just dangerous, it was downright dirty.
If anything, the Los Angeles Lakers all-star didn’t go far enough in griping about the play in Atlanta that left him with a severely sprained left ankle.
The NBA also came up short in its response, which amounted to a statement acknowledging a foul should have been called on the Hawks player for sliding under an airborne Bryant while defending a shot at the end of the game. Nothing more. Not even so much as a fine.
The league strangely failed to crack down on a very point it’s been emphasizing in recent years: When a shooter goes up, he must get a chance to come down. Bryant never got the chance, his left foot landing on Jones’ right foot.
Bryant tried to come back Friday at Indiana without missing a game. He didn’t last long, missing four shots in the first quarter before he shut it down for the night. With his ailing ankle clearly not close to 100 percent, his jumpers kept coming up short. It was only the 15th scoreless game of Bryant’s career.
The Lakers still managed to pull out a win, beating the Pacers 99-93 while Bryant, holding a device with wires running to his ankle, cheered on his teammates from the bench.
"I just couldn’t put any pressure on it," Bryant said. "It just continued to get worse. It didn’t get loose at all."
Going forward, the NBA needs to do a better job defending Bryant, LeBron James and other high-profile players, because they’re the very reason we watch this game. But this really applies to anyone who goes up for a shot.
At the very least, Jones should’ve taken a hit in the wallet. A suspension of one or two games wouldn’t have been all that farfetched, either.
There’s no way a journeyman who’s on his sixth NBA team and stays in the league largely because of his defensive prowess should get away with a shady move that could potentially have such profound impact on the postseason. Come to think of it, no one should.
Clearly, after the way Bryant struggled against the Pacers, it’s too soon to tell when he’ll get back to being the same player he was before Wednesday’s injury.
You know, the guy who had literally taken an underachieving Lakers team on his back and hoisted them to the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
With the 34-year-old Bryant playing like he did a decade ago and Dwight Howard looking healthy for the first time all season, Los Angeles had a potent 1-2 punch and a chance to move up another spot or two in the standings.
Certainly, they had the look of an extremely dangerous team for whoever they drew in the opening round of the playoffs.
Now, who knows? Sprained ankles are a tricky thing. Maybe Bryant sits for a while, hoping rest will help. Maybe he accepts being Kobe Light, someone who knows he can’t play at his usual level. Maybe he pushes himself too hard and makes things even worse.
Whatever the case, the Lakers could miss the playoffs _ and the NBA would have two of its biggest stars sitting at home.
All because of the way Jones defended Bryant’s fadeaway jumper that could’ve tied the game with 3 seconds remaining. The ball slid off the side of the rim and Bryant’s ankle twisted awkwardly when he landed on Jones’ foot.
Kobe crumpled to the court, the Hawks got the rebound and Kyle Korver made two free throws to clinch a 96-92 victory that could have a huge impact on both teams’ seasons.
Jones defended himself Friday after a morning shootaround at Philips Arena, saying he didn’t mean to hurt Bryant.
"I was just trying to make a basketball play, trying to contest the jump shot," Jones said. "I was trying to make the best basketball play I could to help our team win the game. Unfortunately, he rolled his ankle. But that was never my intent."
The 32-year-old Jones has been around long enough to know better. His version is even tougher to swallow when you consider there’s history between these two: Jones, you might recall, blatantly stuck out his leg to trip Bryant during Game 4 of the 2009 Western Conference finals.
"I’m not saying it should have happened," Jones said after the latest run-in. "But these things happen in basketball. Unfortunately, there’s no exact science to contesting jump shots, exact space and specificities. I just tried to get as close to him as I could to try to contest the jump shot. That is all."
The video tells a different story.
With a chance to send the game to overtime, Bryant drove toward the baseline against Jones, stopped suddenly and launched a jumper while drifting away from the basket. Jones reacted a split-second after Bryant began to go up, but quickly reversed himself and began moving toward the shooter.
As Jones explained, he was looking to get as close as he could to disrupt the shot, without picking up a foul.
He went too far, way too far. By the time Bryant came down, Jones was right underneath him _ and, particularly troubling, he appeared to subtly stick out his right leg, which it how Bryant got injured.
While some Hawks privately complained that Bryant was at least partially to blame for kicking out his right leg at the top of his arc (no argument there; he did), that was a mere sidebar to the main issue.
Even one of Jones’ teammates acknowledged as much.
"He played pretty aggressive defensively," Hawks center Al Horford said. "I would say, uhh, it was pretty borderline. I wouldn’t want anybody to take my feet out. I don’t think that was his intention. He was just playing hard defense."
With benefit of the replay, the NBA botched a chance to make it clear that hard defense is one thing, doing what Jones did is unacceptable.
Instead, he essentially shrugged off any lasting ramifications.
"I don’t think this will be anything serious going forward," Jones said. "It will blow over after a little bit."
In his mind, he was just going his job, and it’s easy to see how he came to that conclusion. This is how Jones and those like him stay in the league, with hustle and effort and stretching the rulebook as far as it will go _ and then some.
"Dirty plays are things that have nothing to do with basketball itself," Jones insisted. "I take pride in trying to make basketball plays, to be aggressive, to not give up on plays. As long as I do that, I’m not worried about the view of being a dirty player or doing anything dirty. I’m trying to make basketball plays. There’s nothing out of the context of trying to win a basketball game."
Now the NBA needs to do its job:
Play a little defense on behalf of its biggest stars.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
AP Sports Writer Mike Marot in Indianapolis contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)