It’s not often that an opposing player can upstage the Spurs at the AT&T Center, even when they are winning their 28th straight game on their home court, but few players are as intertwined with the Tim Duncan-Gregg Popovich Spurs dynasty as Lakers star Kobe Bryant, the No. 3 scorer in NBA history.
Saturday’s game was a tribute to Bryant, and in the end his competitive spirit made it a game to remember.
When Bryant announced in late November that this season would be his last every visit to another team’s arena for the last time became part of a farewell tour. So when it was time for Bryant to be introduced before tipoff of the Spurs-Lakers game on Saturday night, the lights in the arena were dimmed and a video montage of his career highlights was played on the gigantic new video screen in the refurbished venue.
Even San Antonians who previously had booed Bryant every time he touched a ball in games on the Spurs home court – first The Alamodome and, now, the AT&T Center – stood and cheered and before the trip down video lane had ended they already were chanting: “Kobe … Kobe … Kobe.”
As Bryant left the Lakers bench to join the other four Lakers everyone in the arena, Spurs players and coaches included, stood and roared their appreciation for one of the most gifted, competitive players ever to test some of the best teams in Spurs history.
Bryant tapped his chest and blew a kiss to the crowd, taking in the rarest of moments in an arena where he typically played the arch villain in the NBA’s best rivalry of the past two decades.
It was a surreal moment but one Bryant appreciated.
“It was very nostalgic, brought back a lot of memories,” Bryant said. “I felt extremely touched.
“It’s weird. It’s hard to get into a competitive mindset after that because you just feel so thankful for them even doing that, the amount of mutual respect.”
Of course, there was also a game to be played and that has been the problem for Bryant over the past three seasons. He has suffered a torn left Achilles tendon (April, 2013); a ruptured right kneecap (Dec. 2013), a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder (Jan., 2015) and this year has missed time with a sore left leg, a sore lower back, a sore right shoulder and a sore right Achilles tendon.
He entered Saturday’s game shooting just 35.5 % and a horrid 27.6 % from 3-point range. His scoring average, 16.7 points per game, was the third-lowest of his 20-year career.
He got off to a terrible start against the Spurs, missing 8-of-10 shots in the first half and misfiring on all four of his long-range shots.
Then came the third quarter, when the magic returned and the game went from ho-hum to holy moly.
After a first half struggle that he said made him feel like the Tin Man without an oil can Bryant loosened up and made 6-of-12 shots, 3-of-6 3-pointersand scored 16 points, with two assists.
He scored 10 straight Lakers points to cap a 15-7 run that cut a Spurs lead that had been as big as 13 points to a single point, when a few thousand Lakers fans began the pre-game chant all over again.
Kobe … Kobe … Kobe.
Oh, yes, there were a few thousand Lakers fans among the 18,418 in attendance. The moment Bryant made his November retirement announcement, nearly every Lakers fan in South Texas hit the ticket aftermarket in search of seats for his final appearance.
They were rewarded with the most entertaining and compelling game of the season at the arena, not to mention a milestone.
Even Gregg Popovich enjoyed the return of the Kobe show.
“It’s like watching Michael Jordan,” the Spurs coach said. “I was just watching. It was great. We made some mistakes. He took advantage of it. He’s fantastic.”
In the end the Spurs had to rally to maintain their perfect home record and they got the offense they needed from Danny Green, 3-for-3 on 3-pointers in the final nine minutes and from Tony Parker, who scored six of his 14 points in the final two minutes of the game.
“I was trying to call plays, and I saw they were a little bit lost, so I just took over,” Parker said. “The first three quarters, I just tried to get my teammates going. LaMarcus (Aldridge) and Kawhi (Leonard). They were playing very well. Danny, too. I was just being patient. In the fourth quarter, I felt like they needed me.”
“It felt a little bit like the old days in the playoffs, Spurs and Lakers,” Parker said. “I think for us, it was good. We won a lot of games by 15, 20, 30. Sometimes it’s nice to have games like that where we have to execute and make sure in the fourth quarter we make plays. A couple plays we were lost. We have to make sure we’re in the right position. When the playoffs come, we’re going to need those kind of plays.”
Afterwards, Bryant waxed poetic about his 20-year relationship with the Spurs and San Antonio.
“The battles that we’ve had,” he said. “At times we’ve gotten the best of them and there have been plenty of times they’ve gotten the best of us but the beauty was in the battles and the struggles between the two; the contrasting styles and personalities. I think that’s what makes this journey we’ve both been on so beautiful.”
The reality of having played in AT&T Center for the last time, Bryant said, still hadn’t hit him a full hour after the game.
“I think when we drive out it will really sink in that this is the last time,” he said. “So strange I won’t be here anymore. It’s weird.”
*Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.