CLEVELAND (AP)—The two superstars wanted to guard each other in the final moments: Kobe on LeBron. LeBron on Kobe.
It had to end like that.
“I didn’t even ask,” James said. “I just told Sasha (Pavlovic) to go somewhere else.”
James scored 33 points and shut out Bryant when the NBA’s top two scorers went one-on-one in the final 2:23 and the Cleveland Cavaliers bounced back from a dismal loss with a 94-90 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night.
James added 10 rebounds and five assists. But it was his pressure on Bryant in the final minutes that helped the Cavs recover from a lousy defensive effort in a 108-90 loss at New York on Wednesday night.
James relished the chance to match up with a player he believes is the league’s best with the ball.
“If you want to win, you have to be able to defend the best player,” James said. “I think we both took on the challenge.”
Bryant finished with 21 points, but missed two shots with James chasing him and the Lakers went 0-for-8 from the floor in the final 4 minutes.
However, on the second miss, Bryant got away from James and grabbed a rebound in traffic before calling timeout with 10.3 seconds left. Bryant winked into a TV camera nearby, knowing he had at least temporarily bailed out his team.
“I told LeBron I was going to get it,” Bryant said, laughing.
But after taking the inbounds pass, Bryant missed a long 3-pointer with 5 seconds left and Lakers guard Derek Fisher was called for a loose-ball foul despite grabbing a rebound over Gibson.
Fisher felt he had got the ball cleanly.
“There was contact,” Fisher said. “But I didn’t push him.”
Bryant felt he had a good look at the missed 3.
“He (James) had his hands down on me. He knows better than that,” Bryant said. “I was going to let it fly. It felt good. As soon as it left my hands, I thought it was going down. I was mad it didn’t go in.”
James was afraid Bryant had hit a game-winner.
“It looked good when I turned around,” he said.
Gibson made both free throws with 3.3 seconds left to seal it for the Cavs, who were coming off an inexcusable road loss to the dysfunctional Knicks. Afterward, Cavs coach Mike Brown said he was embarrassed.
Before facing Bryant and Co., Cleveland’s coached wrote “Defend To Win!!!” on an dry-erase board in the locker room.
The message seemed to get through as the Cavaliers finally showed the type of defensive intensity that led them to their first Eastern Conference title last season.
Cleveland trailed 78-73 entering the fourth, but with James on the bench and Lakers coach Phil Jackson resting Bryant and three other starters, the Cavs opened the final period with a 13-4 run, fueled by Devin Brown’s six points to take an 86-82 lead with 7:34 remaining.
Lakers forward Luke Walton put in his own miss with 4 minutes left to put Los Angeles ahead 90-88, but James came back with a jumper to tie it.
And moments later, he switched on Bryant, his teammate on the U.S. national team. The two went at it practice nearly every day, matchups Bryant said he wished the public could have seen.
The two bonded and James gained a greater respect for Bryant’s game.
“Kobe Bryant is definitely the most explosive player we have in this league,” James said. “There’s no one like him.”
James might be close.
He had 19 points in the first half to 13 for Bryant, who has been more of a playmaker this season for the Lakers.
Odom led Los Angeles with 14 points as the Lakers took a 53-51 halftime lead.
Amid the embarrassment at Madison Square Garden, James and Brown bumped shoulders on the floor as time was called in the fourth quarter. A video clip of the moment was shown repeatedly on ESPN, and because both Brown and James were upset at the time, it led to speculation there may have been a problem between the two.
“It was one guy looking one way and he was looking the other,” Brown said. “I was kind of shocked when somebody told me (it was an issue). There’s nothing to it. I think we have a great relationship.”
James, too, dismissed the incident.
“No issue,” he said.
Jackson (934) remains one victory behind Dick Motta (935) for eighth on the career list. Red Auerbach is seventh with 938. … The Kobe vs. LeBron matchup brought out 10 Browns players, including stars Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards, who both had courtside seats. … In Wednesday’s loss at New York, James had 32 points, eight rebounds, six assists and six steals, becoming the first player to hit those totals in a regulation game since Mitch Richmond in 1997. … Cavs F Anderson Varejao had season-highs with 11 points and 15 rebounds.