Before the game tonight, Raptors coach Dwane Casey recalled a favourite Kobe Bryant moment of his--the 1998 NBA All-Star game. Bryant was voted in as a starter despite averaging just 15.4 points off the bench for the Lakers; he was that popular. As Casey remembers it, there was a moment in the game when a then 19-year-old Kobe waved out Karl Malone, one of the NBA's greatest, in the post. "And Karl Malone yelled over to George [Karl], 'George, get me outta here... I can't play with these young guys'," remembers Casey. "But that's how much confidence Kobe had at the time."
Afterwards, Casey joked that Malone's rant actually had a few more choice F-words in it. As a representative Kobe anecdote this one sums up Kobe's game both then and now. As he plays through his final season at 37 he's still having trouble playing with teammates, and his game can still elicit F-words from others, if not himself.
Kobe, even diminished, can still imprint his will upon the game. It was hard to miss the fans bedecked in purple and gold who chanted his name, the video tribute that ran in the first quarter, and ultimately the look of the game itself, which mostly matched his ugly late period form. The Lakers shot 35 percent from the floor (20 percent from three) in the first half, while the Raptors executed poorly for stretches to even the level of play. There was a lot of aimless dribbling, hopeless drives and turnovers (a few of which resulted in some nice plays for the Raptors).
It was not all doom and gloom though, as several of the Raptors decided to air out their best Kobe impressions for the man himself. In the first quarter it was Terrence Ross, bombing threes and running the break for a pretty dunk (as Kobe got the hell out of the way).
.@T_DotFlight31 #RTZ https://t.co/H27khdcsgp— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 8, 2015
Meanwhile, DeMar DeRozan did his best to match his LA inspiration with a 3-of-6 first half and a balanced four rebounds and four assists. Kobe had six points by this point too, on 3-of-6 shooting, to go with six rebounds and three assists. Once again though, if not for the relentlessly angry play of Kyle Lowry, the Raptors would have been lost. He tallied 19 points in the first half on the way to a 27 point, seven rebound, six assist game. For kicks Lowry shot 5-of-11 on threes and looked like he cared not one iota about Kobe's farewell tour.
It's around here I should mention the Raptors were playing without DeMarre Carroll (out indefinitely with a right knee contusion) and Lucas Nogueira (out with a strained left ankle, and because the universe is a cold unfeeling place). Outside of Cory Joseph and his punchy 14 points, the Raps' bench provided minimal help to the starters, with Patrick Patterson, James Johnson and Norman Powell all proving to be ineffective in different ways. The Lakers crept back into the game in the third, despite the modest Kobe performance, with a 10-2 run tying it at 71 before the final frame.
This game is almost unwatchable.— Eric Koreen (@ekoreen) December 8, 2015
After three quarters, it was remarkable how unremarkable Bryant had been to that point; he was unselfish, rarely forcing the action and shooting well (5-of-11). On a breakaway opportunity, his age showing, Bryant opted for the lay-up, his legs no longer able to carry him up for the dunk. It was the correct play. But then the fourth started and something funny happened.
With the score tied at 78, Ross threw down another huge dunk, then hit a three. Kobe, as we've been conditioned to expect, came back and hit a jumper right in Ross' mug. Terrence responded, and amazingly, Kobe hit a corner three. For a few minutes it looked like we'd get some kind of Ross vs. Bryant showdown, a vintage Kobe performance, something amazing.
It was clear Kobe could see the narrative coming too. "When I was sitting on the bench and they started chanting 'We want Kobe," he remarked after the game, "I thought they started chanting a little too early, I do. I thought, 'Give me five minutes'." Still, as Byron Scott inexplicably went away from Julius Randle (who had a mean 15 and 11 for the game) and rookie D'Angelo Russell down the stretch, it looked like it would be up to Kobe. But then he airballed a three and missed another forced jumper along the baseline--his money spot as Casey noted pre-game. And suddenly the lead was pushed back up by Lowry, DeRozan and a fearsome alley-oop finish from Biyombo.
Bismack Biyombo just ended the Lakers https://t.co/4g8017ySpg— Drew Garrison (@DrewGarrisonSBN) December 8, 2015
After the game, Ross, who finished with 22 points in a team-high 39 minutes, was asked what it felt like going against Bryant. "It was really fun, especially because it's the last time I'll play him," said Ross, his eyes widening, a smile crossing his face. "It was fun."
Go figure the evening would end with another F-word.