HOUSTON – On the rare occasions when an NBA All-Star Game is tight late, the exhibition always turns into an ultra competitive game of pride, with typically only the elite left playing. The West's Kobe Bryant reflected that intensity when he made a request to coach Gregg Popovich in how to handle LeBron James with 5:59 left and the West clinging to a 123-120 lead.
"He was talking during the timeout saying he wanted to take [James] one-on-one, and he did a pretty good job," West All-Star Tony Parker said.
Chris Paul got Most Valuable Player honors on Sunday evening after earning 20 points and a game-high 15 assists in the West's 143-138 victory. West forward Kevin Durant had a game-high 30 points and the East's Carmelo Anthony had 26, shining as the stars they are, too. But once the buzzer sounded, the talk of the game wasn't CP3, KD or 'Melo. Rather, Kobe vs. LeBron.
James finished with 19 points and five assists while nailing three 3-pointers in 30 minutes, an admirable All-Star Game performance. But only one point was scored once Bryant took over the defensive duties late as he also blocked two shots, stole a ball and let James know all about it on the court.
"Just taking the challenge and settling in a little bit when the game gets close," Bryant said. "It's fun. I enjoy it."
Bryant surprised the sellout crowd by blocking James' 19-foot jumper with 2:39 left. Durant followed with a fast-break dunk five seconds later to give the West a 136-126 lead. The West appeared to have victory in hand, but the relentless Bryant wanted more LeBron. Bryant stole the ball from James with 53.9 seconds left which lead to a Blake Griffin dunk that pushed the West ahead further, 142-134. And for his final impressive measure, Bryant blocked another James shot with 40.9 seconds left.
Maybe Bryant wanted revenge after the Los Angeles Lakers' first encounter this season with James and the Miami Heat last month. That's when James, after making a defensive demand of his own, held Bryant to three points in that ballgame's final 5:27.
"At some point of the game when we play the Lakers we always guard each other, especially in the fourth quarter," James said. "It's very, very competitive."
James is playing the best basketball of his life, averaging 27.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists. With respect to Durant, James is the season's MVP front-runner. But Bryant could care less about all that on this night. Once the West got back on the floor after the timeout in the final five minutes, Bryant took the challenge like an old man trying to show he's still got it to the youngsters on the blacktop. Bryant lives for these moments and he bodied James as if he was actually bigger and stronger than the Heat's superstar, who at 240 pounds outweighs Bryant by about 40.
"I'm absolutely not surprised," James said.
With 34.7 seconds remaining, James bullied his way to the basket before getting fouled by Bryant on a post move. James made 1-of-2 free throws to account for his only point down the stretch with Bryant smothering him.
"I didn't want him to score on me, dammit," Bryant said. "I gave him two free throws down there. It was a great, great post move."
Said James: "It's all in good spirit. Two guys that love to compete, love to go at it. I had a lot of fun."
Bryant has had the good fortune of playing against three All-Star generations. He fondly remembers when Michael Jordan schooled him during his first All-Star appearance in 1997. Then there was the era of Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, Ray Allen, Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady; that's when Bryant shined brightest, winning MVP honors in 2002, 2007, 2009 and 2011. And now, it's James' time to sit on his throne about them all.
But before James completely snatches the torch, Bryant grabbed an opportunity to show the new dog some old tricks to the delight of the fans who got more than your typical boring All-Star Game in the end.
"The last eight minutes are usually more intense," Bryant said. "The last eight minutes of the game are what fans really want to see. They want to see that competitive spirit. All in all, I think we gave them a pretty good show."
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