LOS ANGELES — The Farewell Tour has seen ovations, letters, gift exchanges, video tributes, tear-jerking moments and, frankly, a whole lot of missed jumpers and missed opportunities. But Kobe Bryant’s last season finally produced a truly vintage performance—the kind that requires no qualification, the kind that brings memories of more efficient days flooding back, the kind that produces genuine antipathy between longtime competitors.
“I hate him,” Timberwolves coach Sam Mitchell said, when asked about Bryant’s throwback showing afterward. “If I don’t ever see him again, it will be too soon. I hate him.”
Mitchell, who was on the losing end of Bryant’s career-high 81-point explosion in 2006 as coach of the Raptors, seemed to purposefully avoid praising Bryant during his pregame comments on Tuesday. By the end of the night, after a 119–115 Lakers victory and a season-high 38 points by Bryant, Mitchell had no choice.
“The [Lakers have] got a guy in that locker room who is arguably one of the top five, six, seven players ever,” Mitchell said. “He’s not going to let them guys quit. … He done scored too many points. Everybody thinks he’s done and all that. He’s not the same Kobe, and he would tell you [that]. But there’s nights when he’s feeling good and he sees the ball go in.”
This was one of those nights—really, the best recent example of that type of night. Bryant scored his 38 points on 10-of-21 shooting while adding five rebounds and five assists. The 38 points marked his highest output since Nov. 2014. He hit seven three-pointers, his most since 2008. He became the first player age 37 or older to score his age since Reggie Miller in ’05. He became the first player age 37 or older to go for 38/5/5 since Karl Malone in ’03.
Most importantly, Bryant delivered the victory, just the 10th of the Lakers’ season and the team’s first since Jan. 12 to snap their 10-game losing streak. After L.A. blew a 16-point lead in the second half, he scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, nailing two three-pointers, a jumper and six straight free throws to seal the win.
The Staples Center crowd repeatedly chanted “M-V-P” and hundreds of fans stood to snap photos of Bryant at the free-throw line. “A lot of Chinese fans watched this game and cried,” one reporter told Bryant during his postgame press conference. “They really, seriously cried.”
During the contest’s final stretch, Bryant dueled with Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota’s 20-year-old reigning Rookie of the Year. Wiggins buried a late turnaround jumper over Bryant; cameras then caught him telling Bryant, “I got that from you.”
This time, Bryant had an answer. He wasn’t left helplessly patting Wiggins on the back, like he did with Dirk Nowitzki after the Mavericks forward hit a game-winner earlier this month. He wasn’t forced to settle for autographing his sneakers after a big loss, like he did for Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant. On this night, Bryant laughed last, sinking a signature jumper of his own with 26 seconds left to give L.A. a three-point lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
“He’s the greatest of my generation,” said Wiggins, who scored a team-high 30 points on 13-of-20 shooting. “He perfected the game of basketball.”
During a season of late-game struggles—Bryant was shooting just 32% in clutch situations entering Tuesday—he finally put a game away.
“The really bad [games] are the ones that are difficult to go through, but you look back and they’re more enjoyable,” Bryant said. “That stretch at the beginning of the season was like, ‘What the hell am I doing out here?’ You have to really dig deep and find yourself through that.”
Bryant found his legs against the Timberwolves, whose youth, lack of perimeter shooting and mental errors aided the Lakers’ late-game success. He found his jumper, he found that confident swagger as he jogged back down the court, he found a building’s worth of adulation directed at his present acts, rather than his history.
He also found what he seems to crave the most and what has often eluded him over the last few years: begrudging respect from a beaten opponent.
“Thank you for the hate,” Bryant replied, when informed of Mitchell’s comments. “I appreciate that. Truly, I love that.”
For a moment, Bryant looked and sounded as happy as his screaming fans.