After a nearly eight-month rehabilitation from Achilles surgery, Kobe Bryant is set to make his debut for the Lakers against the Raptors on Sunday. In the hours before the 9:30 p.m. ET tip off, the NBA and legendary coach Phil Jackson welcomed one of basketball's biggest stars back to the court.
The NBA crafted a "Welcome Back!" video to honor Bryant, splicing together clips of him shooting a free throw in time-lapse fashion. The 30-second video shows the 35-year-old guard progressing through his career -- teenaged Kobe, mini-afro Kobe, NBA Finals Kobe -- but maintaining the exact same form and mannerisms (dribbles, ball spin, jersey wipe, deep breath, release) on his free throw routine. It's a tidy reminder of Bryant's longevity and focus.
Jackson, who manned the bench during all of Bryant's five titles, reminisced on one of Bryant's most memorable games, his career-high 81-point explosion against the Raptors on Jan. 22, 2006.
"Excited to see Kobe back on the floor [tonight]? I’m hoping he’s at least 90 percent," Jackson wrote on Twitter. "Remembering a game vs. Toronto one Sunday some seven years ago. #81."
Bryant shot 28-for-46 on that night, hitting seven of his 13 three-point attempts and knocking down 18 of his 20 free throws. He added six rebounds, two assists and three steals in 42 minutes.
The 2013 Raptors shouldn't need to fear the full force of Bryant's might. The Los Angeles Times reported Sunday that Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said that Bryant is "not going to be above the rim for a while" and that his playing time would be kept in the "20-something" minutes range as he begins his comeback.
The 15-time All-Star guard announced Friday that he would return with a Facebook video that read "The legend continues... December 8." That video showed Bryant's No. 24 Lakers jersey going through rain, snow, thunderstorms and lightning, a symbol of Bryant's journey back from his April Achilles injury.
Bryant averaged 27.3 points, 6 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game last season, earning All-Star and All-NBA First Team honors, and needs just 676 points to move past Michael Jordan for the No. 3 spot on the all-time scoring list. He signed a two-year, $48.5 million contract extension with the Lakers back in November.
L.A. enters the game with a 10-9 record on the season, sitting in 10th place in the Western Conference and one game out of the playoff picture.