On the 10th anniversary of Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game, the second-highest individual output in NBA history, the Spurs understood that no matter how much age and injury have taken from the Lakers future Hall of Famer, he remains one of the greatest players in league history.

When players lined up for the opening tip Kawhi Leonard positioned himself next to Bryant, a show of respect that recognizes the future Hall of Famer remains the heart and soul of the Lakers, even as he has struggled with his shot while playing his 20th season at age 37.

The reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard has shut down most of the league’s prolific perimeter scorers this season, from four-time scoring champ Kevin Durant to Knicks star Carmelo Anthony.

Add Bryant to the list. At the conclusion of a 108-95 Spurs win that extended their longest win streak of the season to 13 games and produced the best start to a season in franchise history, Bryant was 76 points shy of his point total on Jan. 22, 2006.

Smothered by Leonard during most of his 27 minutes on the court, Bryant missed seven of his nine shots, a far cry from his 28-for-46 shooting in his 81-point explosion ten years prior.

In a televised post-game interview Popovich explained Leonard’s ability to disrupt even the game’s best scorers.

“Kawhi takes great pride in his defense,” Popovich said. “That’s where his game starts. He defends, he rebounds and everything flows from that. He just takes it seriously and enjoys that part of the game.”

It was fitting that it was Manu Ginobili, a player Bryant once called his all-time favorite foe, who led the Spurs to a milestone win, 108-95, by making 9-of-10 shots and scoring 20 points in just 19 minutes. He also had four rebounds, four assists and scored 13 points in a third quarter the Spurs closed with a 15-6 run, with Ginobili scoring or assisting on 10 of the points.

“Manu is a great competitor,” Popovich said in a televised post-game interview. “He was sensational.”

Ginobili has enjoyed his competition with Bryant over his 13 seasons with the Spurs. He understands how difficult that last few injury-plagued seasons have been for Bryant, especially his recovery from a ruptured Achilles tendon.

“We all knew it wasn’t going to be easy (for Bryant) after almost two years off. Achilles surgery is tough and, at 36, even tougher. It’s hard. But he’s competing, he’s still scoring 16 points a game. He’s not shooting great but he’s still somebody you’ve got to put your best defender on because if he goes off anything can happen. He’s incredible. He can still change a game.”

But not on this night, when Ginobili was in the same sort of shooter’s “zone” as Bryant was on his career night ten years earlier.

With their win the Spurs ran their record to 38-6, besting the 2010-11 team that started 37-6 but lost Game 44. Spurs forward David West was with the New Orleans Hornets when the 2010-11 team suffered its seventh loss, leading the Hornets to a 96-72 win, scoring a team-high 18 points and grabbing 10 rebound in a game played at New Orleans Arena.

West started Friday’s game in LaMarcus Aldridge’s frontcourt spot as Aldridge sat out the game with back spasms. Starting point guard Tony Parker, who sat out Thursday’s game in Phoenix, returned to the lineup against the Lakers and had 10 points in 22 minutes.

The Spurs remained a perfect eight-for-eight in the second game of back-to-back sets. They are an amazing 15-1 overall in both sides of back-to-backs, confirmation that they may have the deepest bench in the league. Against the Lakers they got 56 of their 108 points from reserves, 20 from Ginobili and 15 from backup point guard Patty Mills, who made all three of his 3-point attempts.

The Spurs have two days off to prepare for their matchup with the NBA-leading Golden State Warriors, who pushed their record to 40-4 on Friday with a win over the Indiana Pacers. Even Popovich, who insists each game is “about us,” rather than the opponent of the day, had to admit the game will have a different air. 

“There’s no doubt the players will look at it like more than (just another game),” the Spurs coach told reporters in a televised post-game press conference. “They can’t help it. They’re playing the best team in the league and they’ll be fired up about that.”

*Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Mike Monroe

Mike Monroe is a longtime, award-winning NBA and Spurs reporter who recently retired from the Express-News and is now contributing to the Rivard Report.