MIAMI – Kobe Bryant(notes) had come back into the empty arena, his gray Lakers T-shirt soaked with sweat as the shots kept arcing into the night. The clock lurched toward midnight, the clean-up crew stuffed popcorn boxes and wrappers into trash bags and the NBA's most maniacal talent wouldn't leave the gym. He had returned to shoot for an hour and a half on the Heat's floor, to go back to work, launching hundreds of jumpers and inspiring a spectacle born of obsession and manipulation. This was for him. This was for them. This was because Bryant can still see LeBron James(notes) and Dwyane Wade(notes) in June, that the Miami Heat are still championship contenders.
This was a complete mind game from Bryant, but also a concession of respect that he hasn't counted out the fledgling Heat in the Eastern Conference the way some have gone and buried them. This is the way he sends messages, the way he shows respect. The Lakers have lost twice to the Heat now, and part of Bryant understands he won't win his sixth title unless these Lakers can beat them four times this spring.
Yes, the Heat got Kobe again on Thursday night, beat the Lakers 94-88. Wade owned the fourth quarter, ended a five-game losing streak, and the Heat's three stars embraced long and hard at midcourt when it was over. Out of the arena they walked with such a sense of relief, with a renewed belief, and here was Bryant illustrating his devotion to the game's pain: physical and mental.
He was beating himself up on the floor late Thursday, stealing the stage and sending a bleep-you to James and Wade: Enjoy your night out after a big March victory, because I'm staying back to turn out the lights in your gymnasium.
Bryant wanted the workout, wanted the chance to cleanse himself of missed shots and missed opportunities in the final minutes. Mostly, he wanted James and Wade to understand the lengths they'll need to go to take his title away.
"This is my job," Bryant would say 2½ hours after the game, slumped in a chair courtside. "This is what you're supposed to do … "
Yes, Bryant closed down the arena, but he couldn't drive out the Heat. He'd been sloppy with the ball in the final minutes, missed some shots and let Wade get the better of him. Bryant hates losing, yes, but he really hates losing to the Heat. After the game, he was still railing over Wade hitting his elbow on a 3-point shot with just over a minute left and the Lakers down two points. "He fouled the hell out of me," Bryant said.
Still, the Lakers lost and Bryant admired the way Wade had come for them. Bryant isn't close with James, but he has a different relationship with Wade. After the game, Bryant was asked in a private moment if the decision of Wade and James to come together has been a much more difficult proposition than they imagined.
"Oh clearly it is," Bryant said. "It's been challenging for them, trying to figure things out. But they're going to be all right."
For Team USA, Bryant and Wade had been considered the two closers. "Our alpha dogs," one team official said. In the gold-medal victory over Spain in the 2008 Olympics, the fourth quarter of a tight victory belonged to them – not James. Wade requested to cover Bryant on Thursday night and forced him into misses and turnovers in the fourth quarter. Bryant had a hellacious start to the game but needed 21 shots for his 24 points. He's played brilliantly for the Lakers and had his moments Thursday. Still, the final minutes belonged to Wade's ferocity on defense, on the coach's willingness to turn the ball back over to him.
"I've played against him, and I've played with him on the Olympic team, and I know this: He's really good at [closing]," Bryant told Yahoo! Sports. "He's not afraid of those moments. I think the world of him. His game, his competitive spirit. … He's great."
And then, Kobe's eyebrows furrowed and he said: "I'd like to see us keep him out of the paint, though. I'd like to see us make him take some jumpers."
The Heat had been under siege, falling fast, and they needed desperately to correct themselves. Before the game, Lakers coach Phil Jackson disparaged the Heat's offense, calling it "X-box" basketball full of one-on-one. Yet, the Heat finally had role players make shots, and most of all, granted Chris Bosh's(notes) wish for a bigger part in the floundering offense.
Bosh had made his demands in big, bold proclamations, blurting his need for the ball and baskets with a bemusing bravado. There was merit to his case, but most people – even his teammates – struggled to get past the awkwardness of his pitch without a roll of the eyes and a laugh. Twenty-four points later, Bosh had gone hard at the Lakers' frontline and served notice to them and his teammates.
All those Heat stars breathed a sigh, packed up and left American Airlines Arena. Bryant marched back onto the floor at 10:45 p.m. and started sweating again. Three Heat ball boys fed him passes, and Bryant marched to every corner of the floor and lofted his shots. Security staff and other Heat officials stood befuddled, unsure what to do. One security worker insisted he had never witnessed this in his eight years on the job. The Lakers were gone and Bryant was still dripping sweat on the Heat logo.
Sometimes, players will do this in their own arena, but never on the road. This was a spectacle and no accident. Bryant's still the player they're chasing because he's the MVP of the back-to-back NBA champions. Bryant knows these Heat will get it together and become a problem for everyone in the Eastern Conference. Wherever James and Wade had gone late Thursday, Bryant clearly wanted word to reach them: He won't accept losing to the Heat. Not on Christmas, not on Thursday night and not in June.
Hours later, when asked about his motivation in a text message, Bryant responded with the words of Achilles: "I want what all men want. I just want it more."
Nevertheless, the Miami Heat are still alive, and Kobe Bryant had gone and delivered a profound respect as the clock moved toward midnight. He was still sweating on the court here, still sweating the Heat.
Want his title?
Keep coming for Kobe, keep coming for June.