Bryant returned after missing 14 games with an ankle injury but couldn’t reverse Los Angeles’ slide as LeBron James scored 25 points—21 in the second half—and Zydrunas Ilgauskas had 30 to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 103-89 victory Sunday.
Bryant, who until a few days ago wasn’t expected to play until after next weekend’s All-Star break, finished with 26 points on 7-of-22 shooting in 41 minutes of the nationally televised matchup.
Other than the final score, things couldn’t have gone much better for him.
“I was still able to get to the basket,” Bryant said. “It just felt good to play. I haven’t played in a long, long, long time. On certain plays I was wheezing a little and I didn’t have the lift on some shots. “
The Lakers, who went 6-8 without their superstar, have dropped five of their last six games. Los Angeles finished a five-game trip at 1-4 and have just one game left before getting a much-needed stop in the season.
“We’re OK,” Bryant said. “We just have to pull our shoes up and move on. We have to man up and go get it.”
Bryant hadn’t played since rolling his right ankle on Jan. 13 when he stepped on the foot of Cavaliers forward Ira Newble. On Saturday, Bryant practiced at full speed and after warming up—he didn’t try any drives— before Sunday’s game, the NBA’s second-leading scorer decided to test his ankle.
Bryant didn’t appear to be slowed by the injury, hanging in the air on several twisting attacks to the basket and a highlight-reel dunk—his only basket of the second half. His jumper was affected by the layoff as he went just 1-for-10 after halftime.
“He looked wonderful,” said James, who added nine assists and eight rebounds. “You didn’t see him go down the middle and dunk? He looked great. I loved having him back. You always want to compete against the very best. That’s my favorite player in the game.”
James made sure the Cavaliers avenged a 98-94 loss in Los Angeles when the Lakers won despite losing Bryant early in the first half with the sprained ankle.
James, who will make his first All-Star appearance in Denver next Sunday, didn’t attempt a free throw and had just one rebound in the first half. He had only six points as Cleveland led 65-59 in the third quarter before taking over.
The 20-year-old star scored 13 of his team’s next 17 points and assisted on the other two baskets as the Cavaliers opened an 82-72 lead.
“I knew what I had to do to take control,” James said. “My teammates needed me to score. I didn’t want to force things. I was just waiting for my time.”
Bryant and the Lakers couldn’t match the Cavaliers down the stretch, primarily because they had no answer for Ilgauskas, the Cavs’ other All-Star, who went 11-of-13 from the floor and added 11 rebounds.
“We could not stop Dr. Ilgauskas,” Lakers interim coach Frank Hamblen said. “Dr. Z was too much for us.”
Bryant missed his first shot, a 15-foot bank from the left side just seconds into the game. He scored his first points on a reverse layup, and it wasn’t long before he was soaring to the rim.
“I think he could probably take a year off and play well,” Hamblen said.
After spending nearly 30 minutes icing his ankle, Bryant reported no postgame discomfort other than some numbness. He said his ankle improved dramatically in the past few days, allowing him to return sooner than many figured.
“Ankle injuries are funny,” said Bryant. “You can’t tell for certain what’s going to happen. One day it’s hurting, the next you can play. This was the worst for me to come back from—by far.”
It was former Cavaliers center Chris Mihm, not Bryant, who sparked the Lakers in the fourth quarter by scoring five straight points. Chucky Atkins then hit a 3-pointer as the Lakers pulled within 87-82 with 4:52 to play.
But Ilgauskas tipped in a rebound and McInnis fed James for a sensational alley-oop layup to make it 95-86 with 2:44 left. After Bryant missed a 3-pointer, Ilgauskas drained a pair of jumpers in the final minute to close it out.
“He played very, very well,” Cavs coach Paul Silas said of his big man. “Like an All-Star should.”
Minnesota’s firing Saturday of coach Flip Saunders, who was replaced by GM Kevin McHale, took many off guard. Not Hamblen. “Nothing surprises me in this league. I’m on a game-by-game contract,” joked Hamblen, 1-5 since replacing Rudy Tomjanovich. “I can see (Lakers GM) Mitch Kupchak coming down— maybe as early as Tuesday.” … The Lakers had been 28-0 since April 10, 1998, when they had six players or more score in double figures. … Always in the middle of controversy, Dodgers outfielder Milton Bradley wore a Bryant No. 8 jersey and at one point taunted the Cleveland crowd from his seat.