In a romp that was much more entertaining and competitive than most casual observers expected, NBA fans finally got a Kobe-LeBron showdown worthy of a puppet based marketing campaign in this nationally televised contest. At first this game did not look to be on track for such highs though.
The Lakers actually looked headed for another blowout loss early, allowing a struggling Cleveland Cavaliers outfit to begin the game on an 13-6 run, but battled back behind the facilitating of Kobe Bryant (8 assists to go with 7 points in the quarter), who looked amped up for this national TV appearance. Jordan Hill played like a man determined to get traded to a contender (or whatever one would call the Sacramento Kings), battling his way to 10 points on 5-6 shooting to lead the team in scoring during the first quarter and keep LA in the contest, which ended with the two teams all tied up at 30 apiece.
Shockingly, or not so shockingly if you have been following the tire fire of coaching controversies and lack of player engagement that is the Cavs' 2014-15 season thus far, the Lakers were able to end the first half winning 61-57. Bryant out assisted the stagnant Cleveland offense on his lonesome 10-8 (and 17-14 in the game), getting 10 assists in a half for the first time in his illustrious 18 year career. Normally fantastic facilitator LeBron James looked strangely disengaged, especially on defense, in the first half, getting blown by numerous times and even being successfully defended by Ryan Kelly at one point (much to the delight of most of Basketball Twitter and schadenfreude enthusiasts). Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving each scored 14 points in the half to give LeBron some sorely needed assistance to allow Cleveland to stay within arms reach of a suddenly humming Lakers offense with Kobe as its engine.
The Cavaliers took a 79-75 lead heading into the fourth quarter after LeBron began to get going in the third, scoring 9 points on 4-6 shooting. Bryant picked up 5 more assists in the period to get to fifteen dimes through three quarters, on off of his previous career high of 16. In the game's final frame, LeBron took advantage while Kobe was on the bench and led the Cavs to a double digit lead as he continued to score efficiently (finishing with 36-5-5 on 50% shooting), which was not a shock when you realize Ryan Kelly was guarding him for almost the first four minutes. Despite a couple more nice plays by Bryant after he returned at the six minute mark due to his minutes limit, the Lakers could not get enough stops on defense to complete their comeback attempt. Stop me if you have heard that one before during this season.
Despite the loss, what a night from Bryant (19 points, 6 rebounds, and a new career high 17 assists on 50% shooting). The Lakers may need every loss they can get, but you would never know it from watching Kobe on this night, whether he was crossing up LeBron, or feeding Hill (20 points on 10-14 shooting and, weirdly, 3 steals) in their two man game which was so unstoppable tonight. This was a true throwback performance from number 24 in a game in which he was almost certainly the best player, even at age 36, and just a joy to watch and cover. Bryant will likely sit tomorrow versus the Jazz while the Lakers will look to end their three game losing streak. The version of Kobe that played tonight will undoubtedly be missed.