Kobe Bryant shows vintage dominance in West's 148-143 victory over East in 2011 NBA All-Star game
After the tipped ball bounced into his direction, Kobe Bryant grabbed it, dribbled and then immediately scanned the floor.
He noticed the open court in front of him where he could throw down a highlight-reel dunk that'd remind the 17,163 fans at Staples Center for the 2011 NBA All-Star game that he hasn't lost a step. But then he immediately locked in on LeBron James, who remained parallel with Bryant at the timeline. He then calculated his plan of attack. Bryant wanted to avoid what he called the "LeBron chasedown," knowing his bulky 6-foot-8, 250-pound frame could entail him blocking the shot and putting him physically in danger. He eyed Kevin Durant in transition and appeared ready to facilitate to him should that become necessary. And all the while, Bryant continued dribbling downcourt still fixated on James' movement.
Then with a burst of energy, Bryant took off. He gained a step on James, leapt below the left block and powered in for a two-handed dunk, a play that will feature James in an upcoming poster as he failingly tried to swat it away. Bryant's dunk served as the symbolic image in the Western Conference's 148-143 victory Sunday over the East in the 2011 NBA All-Star game in so many ways. It added further intrigue to the Bryant-James comparisons: Bryant's 37 points on 14 of 26 shooting and 14 rebounds put him in a tie with Bob Pettit as the only player to have earned four NBA All-Star MVP awards; James' triple double of 29 points on 10 of 18 shooting, 12 rebounds and 10 assists proved largely instrumental in the East slashing a 117-110 lead to enter the fourth quarter to a 137-135 deficit with 2:34 remaining. The dunk showcased one example where Bryant felt inspired to showcase five dunks, including a baseline reverse jam, after seeing Clippers forward Blake Griffin win the Dunk Contest Saturday night by jumping over the hood of a silver 2011 Kia Optima. And Bryant's constant study on whether James appeared on track with him on the fast-break dunk provided the perfect microcosm of Bryant's awareness of the rest of the NBA's superstars trying to catch up with them, and ensuring he continues to stake his claim as the league's best player.
"Just being around so many young players gave me so much energy to see them bouncing around and all that sort of stuff," said Bryant, who fell shy of a few All-Star records. That included finishing five points shy of surpassing Wilt Chamberlain's 42-point performance in 1962, his 14 field goals remained four field goals short of eclipsing Chamberlain (1962), Michael Jordan (1998) and Kevin Garnett (2003) made and his 26 field-goal attempts was just two attempts short of topping Rick Barry and Michael Jordan for the most shots attempted in a game. "Just reenergized me for the night."
It reenergized him because it provided him a chance to be an elder statesmen on a team that featured only three players in Bryant (13), San Antonio's Tim Duncan (13) and Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki (10) that appeared in the NBA All-Star game for at least 10 years. The younger players proved more than willing to pay homage to that. Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant joked with Bryant that he's an "Old Fella" before marveling at the chance of playing alongside him. Clippers forward Blake Griffin, who shared the spotlight with Bryant from the Staples Center crowd, approached him beforehand: "I'm going to let him do your thing." When Bryant walked onto center court after player introductions, he talked extensively with Denver forward Carmelo Anthony, who's credited help with keeping his spirits up amidst ongoing uncertainty regarding his playing future. And Bryant confirmed Magic center Dwight Howard revelation that he asked him for suggestions on realtors to visit in L.A., a nugget Laker fans will surely feast over considering Howard's reported interest with the Lakers after his contract expires in 2012. But with all the surrounding talent around him, Bryant also made sure to feast on dominating the game. Whether it's Durant's scoring touch, Griffin's dunk, Russell Westbrook's speed, or James' playmaking ability, Bryant continued showing his skillset remains more securely cemented than the hand and foot prints he temporarily planted this weekend at Gauman's Chinese Theater.
Don't consider Bryant's pursuit of Chamberlain's record to be unhealthy considering he went one of four in the fourth quarter and Knicks forward Amare Stoudemire made the observation regarding Bryant's three assists: "He wasn't going to pass the ball at all." Don't consider Bryant's enthusiasm playing with young and athletic players as his suggestion the Lakers need to acquire such talent, with Bryant appropriately remarking that conclusion was a "bikram yoga stretch." And don't consider Bryant's following claim to be contradictory. "It's important for me to step aside. I've had that. It's about me coming out and performing and staying healthy and doing the right things after 15 years, but it's about them at this point."
That's because Bryant's fourth All-Star MVP performance provides full circle to his storied 13-year All-Star career. In just his second year in the NBA, Bryant became the youngest player, at 19, to be voted in as a starter for the NBA All-Star game. Though he didn't even start for his own team, Bryant proved he was worthy of the honor. He led the West with 18 points, six rebounds and two steals despite missing the entire fourth quarter. But Michael Jordan's third All-Star MVP brought quick reminders that he still served as the present force in the league, while Bryant simply provided a buzz on a promising future. Even after compiling three consecutive NBA titles, Bryant felt conflicted in the 2003 ALl-Star game over the driving force that spurs his excellence: winning. Bryant, who wore retro Air Jordans in tribute to Jordan's last All-Star game, later told reporters he was torn when his two free throws forced overtime because he believed Jordan should end his All-Star legacy with a victory.
Eight years later, Bryant acknowledged this game added extra importance for various reasons. He missed the 2010 All-Star game because of a left ankle sprain. It'd be his second All-Star game at Staples Center after his 2004 appearance featured plenty of highlights (20 points, four rebounds, four assists, two steals) and plenty of drama (reports emerged detailing problems with Bryant and Jackson, Bryant and the Lakers and Bryant and Shaq. Then, Bryant arrived 30 minutes late to Staples Center and missed the team picture, apparently because of L.A. traffic.). And acknowledging he's on the tail end of his career, the game provided a platform to for him to exert his influence.
Just consider his halftime exchange with Griffin and Minnesota forward Kevin Love after they jokingly chastised him for grabbing six rebounds in the first half. "I'm the double double king," Bryant recalled saying, a direct reference to Griffin and Love leading the league through 56 games in double doubles with 51 and 46 respectively. He then jokingly pointed at them anytime he grabbed a rebound in the second half. Griffin then joked in turn that he wasn't pleased that Bryant essentially made their job easier.
"If I get 14 rebounds," Bryant said, "that's just luck."
Very little of Bryant's game mirrors actual luck, however, and the effort resembled similar performances to his 31-point MVP efforts in 2002 and 2007 as well as his 27-point effort that earned him the co-MVP with Shaq in 2009. It featured his vintage baseline jumpers, including several against Boston guard Ray Allen. It featured aggressive drives to the basket, such as when Miami Dwyane Wade yelled, "Where you at Kobe?" before he drove right past him. And it featured him showcasing the athleticism he usually wore wearing No. 8.
"He's one hell of a player," West Coach Gregg Popovich said. "He's Kobe. He does things like that. We shouldn't be surprised."
It shouldn't. It becomes harder and harder, however, because of the wear and tear on his body and the accumulated basketball mileage, a point he conceded when he went one of four in the fourth quarter and committed three turnovers. The fourth quarter, man," Bryant said in exhaustion. "I had nothing left. I exceeded my dunk quota for the game." But by the time Bryant exited the game with 5 seconds remaining, the Staples Center crowd and everyone surrounding him knew who should be the All-Star MVP. "He deserved it," James said for reasons NBA Commissioner David Stern outlined eloquently immediately after the game. "We saw some outstanding basketball," he said. "But there can only be one MVP and he's standing to my left."
And that man was Bryant, who readily concedes his time is ticking away once his contract with the Lakers ends after the 2013-2014 season.
"I'm on my way out so it's important for them to carry the league," Bryant said. But for now, he'll gladly continuing to assume that responsibility.
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant of the West protects the ball as Heat forward LeBron James of the East looks for a steal but picks up a foul during the NBA All-Star game at Staples Center on Sunday. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / February 20, 2011
Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant celebrates a play with West teammate Blake Griffin of the Clippers during the NBA All-Star game at Staples Center on Sunday. Bryant won his fourth All-Star MVP award after finishing with a game-high 37 points and 14 rebounds. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times
Photo: West All-Star Kobe Bryant of the Lakers is fouled by East center Dwight Howard of the Magic while pulling down one of his game-high 14 rebounds on Sunday at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times