It was Michael Jordan's night, Kobe Bryant's game, and the Washington Wizards' misfortune.
On the Friday night occasion of what probably was Jordan's final NBA game in Los Angeles, Bryant, at 24 the presumed heir to a league Jordan made his own, scored 55 points. Jordan, who turned 40 last month and expects to retire again after this season, scored 23, the number he made famous, all to frequent ovations.
In an end-to-end game that was hardly in question once Bryant discovered he could hardly miss a jump shot on his way to 42 first-half points, the Lakers defeated the Wizards, 108-94, at Staples Center.
Stirred by the presence of Jordan, basketball royalty for the six titles he won in Chicago and for his seamless game and style, the crowd turned its fawning to Bryant. It chanted his name and made him its MVP, and when Bryant spent the first six minutes of the fourth quarter with a towel draped over his knees on the bench and with 50 points, it begged Laker Coach Phil Jackson to put him back into the game.
Jackson relented, and Bryant, whose career high is 56 points, set last season against the Memphis Grizzlies, scored another five, all from the free-throw line. He reached 50 for the third time this season, for the fifth time in his career, and the 55 is a league high this season.
"I feel happy we played well tonight," Bryant said. "I feel like I did my part."
In a remarkable run of almost entirely jump shots, Bryant scored a team-record 42 points in the first half, when he made eight three-pointers and 14 of 19 shots overall. The eight three-pointers tied a league record, set by Milwaukee's Tim Thomas two seasons ago, and tied by teammates Michael Redd and Ray Allen last season.
He thumped his chest with his fist and grinned and took high fives from teammates who'd seen this act before, and fed him with bounce passes and stood back. With Jerry West, a mentor, sitting in owner Jerry Buss' box far above the Laker bench, Bryant made 14 of his first 16 shots, eight of his first nine three-pointers, scored 23 consecutive Laker points in one 5:42 span, and chased off the Wizards, straining for the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot.
The Utah Jazz beat the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night, leaving the Wizards half-a-game ahead of the Bucks, in eighth. The Lakers remained in seventh place in the Western Conference, a game behind the Jazz. Both teams have 10 games remaining, and the Lakers are the team that is surging. They have won three in a row and are 31-11 since Christmas Day.
"I would have loved to have won," Jordan said on his way out of town. "But we ran into a guy who was very, very hot. We never could answer to that barrage of scoring that he gave us. I think we played competitive. But by far they're a better basketball team than we are.
"For me, personally, it's always fun to play here. The fans are very, very respectful. I'm appreciative of that."
All of which served as the backdrop to Jordan, and Jordan and Bryant, and Jordan and Jackson, and whatever else anyone wished to see, one last time, presumably. If something symbolic was passed, as has been re-examined every time Jordan's path crosses Bryant's, it was hazy.
Bryant deflected direct comparisons. Shaquille O'Neal did not.
Asked if it were a coincidence that Bryant's offense came on a night when Jordan was on the same floor, if almost never defending him, O'Neal said, "Kobe's not really the type to back down. But, in every good karate flick, in order for the student to become the man, he has to kill the teacher."
Asked if Jordan were dead, O'Neal said, "It's not for me to say."
While Bryant insisted he was moved by a request by Jackson to press his offense against the Wizards and not Jordan's presence, he did admit to a competitive rush when Jordan made his first four shots.
"A little bit," Bryant said. "Normally, I would try to control that, but this morning Phil gave me the green light to attack offensively. I was geared toward that."
With 2:34 remaining, with the Laker lead 15, with O'Neal at the free-throw line on his way to an almost-invisible 26 points, Jordan put a towel over his shoulders and received a standing ovation.
With 30 seconds left in the third quarter, Jordan took a charge near the right sideline from Bryant, and Bryant argued the call while straddling the fallen Jordan. When it became evident he would lose the debate, Bryant pretended to pummel Jordan with punches and pulled him from the floor as both laughed.
No wonder Bryant's mood was good. He scored 19 points in the first quarter, 23 in the second. He scored 23 consecutive points for the Lakers, the first two on a fastbreak layup with 2:42 left in the first quarter, the last three on a 26-footer three minutes into the second.
He scored 10 consecutive points, the first two on free throws with 5:44 into the second quarter, the last two on a 19-foot pull-up jumper 1:31 later.