Rivals for all but one season of their certain-first-ballot Hall of Fame careers, Spurs captain Tim Duncan and Lakers great Kobe Bryant squared off against one another for the final time on Friday night at The Staples Center.
Bryant will retire at season’s end and Friday’s game was the fourth, and final, meeting of the season between teams that have combined to win 10 NBA titles in the 19 years Duncan’s and Bryant’s careers have overlapped.
The Spurs have the second-best record in the NBA, a high playoff seed a virtual certainty. The Lakers are languishing in last place in the Western Conference with fewer than 30 games remaining in the 2015-16 season and there is no chance they will make the playoffs. As a result, Duncan and Bryant never will share an NBA basketball court again and that gave added heft to Friday’s game.
Duncan, the 39-year-old Spurs star missed Bryant’s final appearance at The AT&T Center on Feb. 6 because of a sore knee. But he was on the court for the Spurs on Friday and played nearly 28 minutes, nearly as much court time as the 29 minutes and 17 seconds that Bryant logged.
Bryant’s final memory of his 20 seasons of doing battle with Duncan and the Spurs will be a 119-113 loss that seems entirely fitting. After all, it was the 52nd time the two had played against each other in the regular season and the 31st time Duncan was on the winning side.
Add the 30 playoff games they have suited up for and the two all-time greats have been on the court together 82 times, which amounts to a full regular season. Final count for that “season:” Duncan’s Spurs 43, Bryant’s Lakers 39.
The count in Game No. 82: Duncan with 12 points 13 rebounds and 3 blocks; Bryant 25 points, 3 assists and one dislocated finger on his shooting hand.
One of the toughest, most competitive players in league history, Bryant wasn’t about to come out in the fourth quarter of a close game after the index finger on his right hand popped out of socket. Lakers head athletic trainer Gary Vitti pulled the finger back into place, a scene captured by the FoxSports Southwest cameras.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich wasn’t surprised Bryant remained in the game after suffering the finger dislocation with two-and-a-half minutes remaining.
“He’s had injuries and played through stuff that nobody will ever even know about,” Popovich told reporters in a post-game interview broadcast by FoxSports Southwest. “He’s a warrior, one of the toughest we’ve ever had.”
Popovich said he will miss witnessing Bryant’s greatness on the court but will sleep better at night knowing he won’t have to worry about defending him again.
“In some ways it will be great and in other ways we’ll miss him a lot,” the Spurs coach said of Bryant’s pending retirement after 20 seasons. “The whole league will miss him. He’s an iconic figure so he’ll always be missed. But I won’t have to worry about guarding him, that’s for sure.”
Bryant scored seven of his 25 points in the fourth quarter on Friday but it was clear his injured finger affected a 3-point attempt that he missed badly in the final minute.
Friday’s win kept the Spurs record perfect in the second game of back-to-back sets, 11-0, and pushed their season record to 46-9. They got to the midpoint of their eight-game rodeo road trip with a 3-1 record.
The Spurs played without leading scorer and defensive ace Kawhi Leonard for a second straight game because of tightness in his left calf. Popovich started Kyle Anderson in Leonard’s spot and put him on Bryant, with good effect. On the Lakers’ third possession of the game Anderson picked off Bryant’s dribble, stole the ball and sprinted downcourt for a dunk, surely a career highlight for the second-year swing man from UCLA.
Anderson would finish with 14 points, one shy of his career high. He also had three rebounds, three assists and two steals in a little more than 29 minutes, the best game of his young career.
“He worked really hard on a good player,” Popovich said of Anderson’s defense on Bryant. “He did a good job.”
*Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.