It was with much mutual respect that 19-year NBA legend Kobe Bryant and perennial juggernaut San Antonio bid adieu Friday night. In Bryant’s final season at age 37, the 18-time All Star still wielded enough magic to score 25 points in 29 minutes of play. Kobe’s near-vintage performance put a definitive jolt of fear into the mighty Southwest Division leading Spurs. However, the lowly-Lakers dropped contest number 14 in the team’s last 16 outings, losing to visiting San Antonio 119-113.
Friday’s setback marked the second time in February, — and 4th on the year — that Los Angeles was unable to overcome their potent Conference rival. Los Angeles has now fallen to a Western Conference worst 11-45 on the season. Meanwhile San Antonio, Bryant’s long-time competitive muse, improved to 46-9, while running their sterling road record to 18-9.
This unforgettable evening would mark the final time that sure-fire future Hall-Of-Famers Bryant and Tim Duncan would share the same court. The decorated duo’s seemingly endless competitive journey began all the way back in 1997. Duncan’s rookie season.
Following the final-buzzer, the venerable Tim Duncan spoke to ESPN concerning his historical final foray against KB24.
“We’ve played against each other for many years and it’s been great. It’s always a great game when you’re playing against him. You always know you have to bring your `A’ game, because he’s going to bring the best out of you.”
“He’s been a great competitor over the years, and he showed it tonight. He dislocated his finger in the last quarter, but he was still out there. He wants to play, that’s him in a nutshell.”
Indeed, Bryant did dislocate his finger in the fourth stanza; undeterred, the wily veteran showcased his legendary guile one more time while netting seven points in the frame. Though his team may have come up short against the Spurs on this bitter-sweet occasion, there have been many memorable moments — and championship parallels — between the two franchises over the past 19 seasons.
Since the 98-99 campaign, the highly-decorated Lakers and Spurs orginizations have combined to capture 10 NBA championships. During that defining span, both Bryant and Duncan can each boast five coveted championship rings. The “Kobe-Shaq” Lakers ran roughshod over the league from 99-00 to 01-02, while winning three consecutive titles. Not coincidentally Los Angeles’ run of titular dominance was book-ended by San Antonio’s golden-trophy triumphs in both 98-99 and 02-03.
In addition to Kobe’s early millennium “three-peat”, the Lower Merion product also led his purple and gold clad charge to the promised land in 08-09 and 09-10, however, this time, sans Shaquille O’Neal. As a gratifying bonus to silencing all critics who claimed Kobe “couldn’t win the big-one without Shaq”, the Mamba was named NBA Finals MVP in each of those triumphs.
While Bryant and the Lakers preferred their championship glory in dominant staccato bursts, the San Antonio Spurs took a more methodical approach. In San Antonio’s prolonged and epic run at the top, the Spurs have resided upon the league’s most bestowed of thrones in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and most recently 2014.
In that time frame, Kobe Bryant and the San Antonio Spurs shared many memorable playoff encounters. In these seven storied post-season series’ Kobe’s Lakers came out on top by a slim 4-to-3 margin.
With this sentiment in mind, as Kobe and his long-time competitive contemporaries left the court together one final time, a reflective Bryant had this to say to NBA in admiration of both Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs organization.
“It’s been so much fun competing against him (Duncan) and that organization for all these years. I truly enjoyed it, and it pushed me to sharpen and fine-tune my game. So I’m a little sad that that matchup’s not going to happen again.”
“For us as players, we just enjoy and appreciate each other. It’s not a matter of who’s better or who’s greater. You just accept the careers that you’ve had. I appreciate his career, and vice-versa. He and I had an opportunity to have some great dialogues tonight.”
Without question, the NBA’s historical legacy over the past three decades couldn’t have been written without the intertwining championship endeavors of Kobe Bryant or the San Antonio Spurs.
[Image Courtesy Of Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images]