By PAUL NEWBERRY
AP National Writer
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.
The Los Angeles Lakers all-star actually 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, merely putting out a statement on its Web site that acknowledged a foul should have been called on the Hawks player for sliding under an airborne Bryant on a shot at the end of the game, but 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.
Just because he made a remarkably quick recovery — Bryant was in the starting lineup for Friday’s game at Indiana, though clearly not at 100 percent — didn’t diminish what happened two nights earlier.
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.
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.
“That’s a very, very dangerous play,” Bryant said. “Especially if I’m fading away, there’s no rhyme or reason why I should come down on somebody’s foot.”
While Bryant didn’t even miss a game after initially being declared out indefinitely, it’s too early to tell when he’ll be the same player he was before Wednesday’s contest against the Hawks.
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 starting to get 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. If Bryant has come back too soon, he’ll risk getting hurt again, perhaps even more seriously than before. Or maybe he won’t be able to play at the same level. Either way, the Lakers could miss the playoffs — and the NBA would have two of its biggest stars sitting at home.
All because Jones wound up underneath Bryant while defending a 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.
Looking to send the game to overtime, Bryant drove toward the baseline against Jones, stopped suddenly and launched a jumper while fading 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 downright unacceptable.
Instead, he essentially shrugged off any lasting ramifications.
“I don’t think this will be anything serious going forward,” Jones said. “It’s happened before. It’s just one unfortunate incident that’s happened. 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