LOS ANGELES (AP) — Kobe Bryant and LeBron James traded hugs, big shots and verbal jabs all night with warmth and humor. In the waning minutes, they went head-to-head in yet another entertaining duel between two of this generation’s greatest talents.
Although LeBron ended up topping his friendly rival again, King James relished what could be one of his final chances to share a court with one of his few true peers.
James scored 36 points and the Cleveland Cavaliers snapped their six-game losing streak with a 109-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night despite Bryant’s 19 points and career-high 17 assists.
“It’s always fun, a pleasure,” James said. “It’s two of the best competitors this game has probably ever seen, and to be on the same floor with him, somebody I looked up to when I was a child growing up, seeing him go straight from high school to the NBA, it’s fun, it’s great. I hated him being out of the NBA last year because of injury, and it’s fun having him back.”
Cleveland had lost nine of 10 before James held off Bryant down the stretch in a scintillating exchange between the basketball icons.
Bryant hit a 3-pointer with 1:54 left and two free throws with 43 seconds to play, cutting Cleveland’s lead to 103-99. But James drove past Bryant for an acrobatic layup with 20.9 seconds left, and Bryant missed a jumper that essentially ended it.
Bryant and James embraced again afterward, and even Kobe allowed himself to relish the moment.
“If we were contending for a championship, I’d be my same moody self,” Bryant said. “But right now, I tend to have a little more perspective, knowing I really won’t get a chance to play against him for much longer. So you want to enjoy it.”
Bryant set a career high for assists in his 1,279th regular-season game, playing in his second straight after skipping three of four games to rest his 36-year-old body. He showed off his playmaking skills, but James got the Cavs comfortably ahead while Kobe sat out the start of the fourth quarter under a strict minutes limit.
James and Bryant laughed and joked throughout the game, exchanging good-natured jibes while waiting to check into the game together. James turned 30 last month, while Bryant’s season has been defined by his weariness from a 19-year career.
Kobe even had something to say when LeBron spectacularly clanged a dunk attempt off the rim.
“He said, ‘That’s what old age will get you,'” James said with a laugh. “You start missing dunks when you thought you was up there.”
James has won 13 of his last 16 matchups with Kobe since 2006. When Bryant went back to the bench after getting his 15th assist in the third quarter, James took charge of the Cavs’ rally to an 11-point lead in the fourth.
“For all of us, those are two all-time greats going at it … like two prizefighters,” Cavs coach David Blatt said. “It’s great to see two guys playing the game at that level for so many years and still involving their teammates in the way that they did.”
Kyrie Irving added 22 points and Kevin Love scored 17 for the Cavaliers, who moved back to .500 with their first victory since Jan. 2.
On the fourth stop of Cleveland’s five-game West Coast trip, James hit four 3-pointers in his second game back from an eight-game absence with an injured right knee.
Jordan Hill scored 20 points in the Lakers’ ninth loss in 12 games.
Cavaliers: James ripped off the protective sleeve on his elbow in frustration after missing his first three free throws, only to miss a fourth without the support. … Love’s back appeared to be bothering him throughout the game. A trainer attended to him during a second-quarter timeout. … Cleveland began the night under .500 for the first time since Nov. 24.
Lakers: Bryant set his previous career high in assists on Feb. 2, 2002, against Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards. … Nick Young scored 14 points, but his streak of consecutive free throws made ended at 31 in the fourth quarter. … NBA career assists leader John Stockton also played 19 seasons, getting a season high of 13 assists that year.
Blatt used just three reserves, but got significant contributions from all eight players. J.R. Smith had three 3-pointers and 14 points, while Timofey Mozgov had 10 rebounds.
Bryant won’t travel to the Lakers’ road game against the Jazz on Friday, and he realizes coach Byron Scott has suggested the team might decide to shut him down for the season in several weeks. “That’s a tough one for me,” Bryant said. “I want to play, but at the same time, I understand his position, and I understand management’s position, and I will do what they ask of me. But it’s very, very hard for me to miss one game.”
Cavaliers: At Clippers on Friday.
Lakers: At Utah on Friday.
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