Kobe Bryant cores during the second half of the NBA All-Star game Sunday. (Jeff Haynes / Associated…)
On a night where Kobe Bryant became the leading scorer in NBAAll-Star game history, he hardly looked like the best player on the court.
In a game that could have featured a Bryant game-winner, he offered none. At a time where he could have showcased highlight reels, Bryant didn't have any.
But that's fine. The Western Conference's 152-149 victory Sunday over the Eastern Conference showed how Bryant remains tough and relevant despite the obstacles thrown at him.
LeBron James' 36 points on 15-of-23 shooting and numerous dunks revealed his tremendous talent. Yet, Bryant defended James on the final possession and then chastised him for passing up the last shot. Paul Pierce heckled Bryant about his missed free throws last week against Dallas as Bryant stood at the stripe with 18 seconds remaining. He only made one of two, but Bryant trash talked with Pierce before, during and afterwards. Dwyane Wade committed a hard foul on Bryant that gave him a bloody nose with 8:48 left in the third quarter. Fittingly enough, Bryant surpassed Michael Jordan's All-Star scoring record by making two free throws between receiving treatment on his battered nose.
Bryant's 27 points on nine-of-17 shooting gave him 271 points through 13 All-Star game appearances. It's a testament to his longevity. But his failure to surpass Hawks forward Bob Petitt with five All-Star MVP awards shows the emerging talent around Bryant.
He has bigger things to worry about, though, than going on a scoring spree. The first part involves making sure his nose feels fine. The other part involves his second-half play. An innovative procedure on both his surgically repaired right knee and sprained left ankle this summer ensured a healthier and more productive campaign where he's leading the league in scoring (28 points per game). But other signs show Bryant must pace himself for the remaining 33 regular-season games.
Despite Lakers Coach Mike Brown's insistence that he'll limit Bryant between 33 and 35 minutes per night, Bryant still has logged 38.2 minutes per game. His legs have looked noticeably tired in the last two games, where he's averaged 19.5 points on 28.2% shooting. And barring the Lakers making a major trade before the March 15 deadline, it's plausible Bryant will have to carry the same burden in the second half of the season and into the playoffs.
Surely, Bryant had his eyes set on adding more to his storied legacy during All-Star weekend. He opened the game with 11 first-quarter points. When Dwight Howard challenged Bryant to drive past him on the baseline in the third quarter, Bryant took up the offer and earned a trip to the free-throw line. Bryant talked trash to James after he passed up a shot on the final possession. And for someone who most cherishes his first All-Star appearance in 1998 because he matched up with Jordan, Bryant relishes passing his idol on the All -Star game's all-time scoring list.
Bryant hardly remained consumed, however, with dominating the spotlight. He exhibited passive off-ball movement. Bryant rarely demanded the ball when Durant dominateed the offense showed. It became the perfect approach. As Bryant knows, a more important challenge defining his legacy awaits.
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