LOS ANGELES – Trailing by a single point in the closing seconds of their season opener, desperate for some late-game heroics from their longtime savior, the Los Angeles Lakers put the ball in the hands of Kobe Bryant just like they had on so many other magical nights across the past two decades.
Only this time he was standing out of bounds.
The final shot of the opening game of what could be the final season of Bryant's legendary career went not to Bryant, but instead to Lou Williams, whose runner bounced harmlessly off the back of the rim. As the buzzer sounded on the season-opening loss for the Lakers against the young Minnesota Timberwolves, Bryant – who had been asked to inbound the ball on the decisive possession – dropped his head then walked off the floor.
So much for a poetic ending to the start of Bryant's 20th season. Should he have been given the last shot? That's probably what Jack Nicholson, all those Hollywood types and Lakers fans wanted after watching their team blow a 16-point lead.
"Don't start that," Bryant warned after the 112-111 loss Wednesday night.
No, on this night at least, Bryant didn't seem upset. Despite the late miss, Williams otherwise had a fantastic Lakers debut with 21 points off the bench while thriving in the pick-and-roll.
"We got a good shot," Bryant said. "That's Lou's shot. That's a great runner for him. It hit the back heel. It's a great look for him."
Lakers coach Byron Scott didn't second-guess his decision to give the ball to Williams, whose 3-pointer with 31 seconds left brought Los Angeles within one.
"I had my mind the whole time to give it to him," Scott said.
Bryant played in his first regular-season game since Feb. 21, having spent most of the previous eight months recovering from a season-ending shoulder injury. He scored a team-high 24 points, but missed 16 of 24 shots, including 10 of 13 3-point attempts. He also missed all five of his shots in the fourth quarter.
"I felt good," Bryant said. "The shots didn't fall down in the fourth quarter, but my health felt good. That timing will come back."
Scott described Bryant's play as "all right" and said his 13 3-point attempts were "probably a little too many." Scott also said the 28 minutes Bryant played in the opener is what his typical nights will be this season.
"I still want him a little closer to the basket," Scott said. "If I can get him in the elbows and mid-post and let him work there, I think that saves him just as well, too."
If this is indeed Bryant's final season, the Lakers seem to be preparing for life without him. Prior to the game, the team passed out T-shirts to their fans that were oddly black, not purple or yellow, with the motto, "Our Present. Our Future."
Los Angeles is promoting rookie D'Angelo Russell and second-year players Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson as the future. But the way those youngsters looked on this night, "Our future" didn't look too promising for a franchise accustomed to championships. Russell, the No. 2 pick in this year's draft, had a forgettable debut with four points. Scott also was unhappy with his defense.
Philadelphia 76ers center Jahlil Okafor, the No. 3 pick, had 26 points and seven rebounds in his debut, while New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis, the No. 4 selection, had 16 points. Randle had 15 points on 5-of-13 shooting and 11 rebounds while Clarkson added 14 and a three assists. None of the three Lakers youngsters appears yet to be a cornerstone to build a franchise around, especially after the team wasted a 16-point lead.
"Overall, we just lost our edge," Randle said. "We didn't finish the game or make plays, so we lost the game."
While Bryant appears open-minded to playing another season if he's healthy, he and the Lakers already sound like they're preparing for a possible goodbye tour. Scott spoke of him in a nostalgic tone before the game. After the first quarter, the Lakers showed video of Bryant passing Michael Jordan on the NBA's scoring list on Dec. 14, 2014. Bryant himself said he is now a lot calmer and more appreciative and even believes he will miss the media upon retirement.
"It felt good to be out there," Bryant said. "I felt like I could have babysat the entire floor, fathered the entire floor."
Bryant is the first player in NBA history to play 20 seasons with one team. Time will tell if his 20th season is his last. Perhaps the Lakers should enjoy every moment of whatever Bryant has left rather than push "Our Present. Our Future," which doesn't appear like anything worth rushing to.