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.
Coach Mike D'Antoni watched closely as Bryant went through warm-ups, then spoke with the team's medical staff and again with the five-time NBA champion before putting him in the starting lineup.
Bryant just wasn't himself.
"It really just continued to swell and I couldn't put any weight on it, so I called it a night," Bryant said after getting more treatment on the sore ankle in the training room. "I told them before the game, 'I don't know how much I have, but whatever I have, I'll give you.'"
How did they do it? Teamwork.
In addition to the production from Howard and Peace, Steve Blake made five 3-pointers and finished with 18 points, and Antawn Jamison added 17 points with four 3s.
"We don't shoot much better than that," D'Antoni said when asked about going 13 of 26 from beyond the arc.
For the Central Division-leading Pacers (40-25), it was a blown opportunity.
George Hill scored 27 points, Paul George had 20 points and Lance Stephenson finished with 12 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. But Indiana shot only 37.4 percent from the field and couldn't make a serious run at Los Angeles after Howard's big play, primarily because the defense couldn't stop the Lakers from outside.
"We had too many breakdowns, we didn't follow the game plan," coach Frank Vogel said. "Guarding the 3-point line was probably the biggest of the mental breakdowns. We left shooters left and right, a variety of different ways. We didn't play a good basketball game."
It was a strange game and not just because of Bryant's absence.
The Lakers started the game by missing their first five shots. The Pacers opened the second quarter 0 for 6. Neither team topped the 30 percent shooting mark until the final 2½ minutes of the half.
George, the Pacers' All-Star, started 0 for 4, and Howard, another All-Star, was called for two personal fouls and a technical less than five minutes into the game. Even the officials found themselves making corrections, twice adding time to the clock in the final five seconds of the first half.
On the court, the play was ragged.
The Pacers took charge early, fell behind 39-28 in the second quarter and eventually closed to 46-41 at halftime. Indiana continued its charge early in the third, using a 15-4 spurt to take a 56-50 lead, and with Bryant out appeared headed toward another home win.
But Bryant provided the inspiration and motivation the Lakers needed to come back.
"Kobe said we've got to do whatever we can, that we had to trust each other," Howard said.
Notes: There was no immediate update about Bryant's availability for Sunday night's game against Sacramento. ... In the final 5.2 seconds of the first half, there were two replay reviews, a 20-second timeout, time added to the clock twice and no points. ... Earlier Friday, D'Antoni said forward Pau Gasol could return in the next few days. He hasn't played since early February after tearing the plantar fascia in his right foot.