LOS ANGELES — Before heading into retirement, and the decades of debates and comparisons that are sure to follow, Kobe Bryant made sure his last head-to-head matchup against LeBron James was a true duel, a tit-for-tat affair that ranked among the most electric games of his 20th and final season.
Bryant came out firing on Thursday, showing no ill effects from a right shoulder injury that sidelined him earlier this week as he repeatedly attacked James in one-on-one situations. In between iconic turnaround jumpers, Bryant mixed in a smooth up-and-under fake that left James grasping at air.
“I told LeBron, if you’re going to let me catch on the post, I’ll score when I’m 80,” Bryant said. “That’s like grown man, old man game. When I catch it on the post, it doesn’t matter.”
His bluster turned into a chuckle at the memory of the successful pump-fake.
“It just looks too realistic,” Bryant said.
The Lakers guard finished with a team-high 26 points on 11-of-16 shooting and three three-pointers.
But James offered responses to seemingly every Bryant basket, and he laughed last, as the East-leading Cavaliers cruised to a 120–108 road victory over the West’s worst team.
“I know he was not taking this game off, for sure, and I definitely wasn’t taking it off,” James said.
The most riveting end-to-end sequence came in the second quarter. After Bryant pounded James for a signature turnaround, James freed himself on the other end for a corner three. Bryant countered with another turnaround, only to watch as James, who was energetic from the opening tip, responded with a nasty hesitation dribble that set up a dunk. Bryant then finished the mano-a-mano sequence with a three-pointer.
“I enjoy the physicality of it,” Bryant said of facing James. “Playing against him is fun because of his size. It’s always fun to have that physicality, backing him down. … We both enjoy having that matchup. There were times he was posting me up and I waved away my teammates. Get the hell away. Don’t double. This is fun.”
This was exactly the type of engaged play missing from last month’s All-Star Game in Toronto, the type of beautiful contrast between two superstars that regrettably never took place during the Finals. Although Bryant and James have combined to make 13 Finals appearances, with one or the other appearing in every Finals since 2007, they never got the chance to formalize a postseason rivalry.
“When he first came into the league, Cleveland was still trying to figure things out,” Bryant said. “I think we hit our stride a lot sooner. Obviously there were years when we could have faced each other. They got bounced by Orlando one year. It just never worked out. In that sense, a real rivalry never developed. To me, rivalries aren’t made in the regular season, no matter how much people try to hype it up. You have to duke it out when it really matters.”
James finished with 24 points (on 9-of-18 shooting), seven assists and five rebounds, punctuating the victory with a lefthanded finish on an off-the-glass alley-oop from J.R. Smith. The four-time MVP also threw a pair of frozen-rope crosscourt passes to set up Smith threes.
”We love the lights. We get up for the best moments,” James said. “I wish I could play against him every single night.”
The Staples Center crowd, realizing that the end is now just a little more than a month away, saluted one of Bryant’s best efforts of the season. He received “MVP” chants when he stepped to the free throw line in the fourth quarter. When he checked out with a little more than two minutes remaining, Bryant received a standing ovation as shouts of “Ko-be” rang down from all sides. After the final buzzer, James and his Cavaliers teammates lined up to hug Bryant one by one.
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“That feeling going against one of the greatest, you can never take that for granted,” James said. “It’s surreal actually. You’re not going to get a real sense for [Bryant’s impact] until you play them next year and he’s not in the lineup.”