The long, painful wait and the guessing are over.
Kobe Bryant will return Sunday when the Lakers face the Toronto Raptors at Staples Center, his imminent comeback announced Friday in a video posted on his and the Lakers' Facebook pages.
Backed by swelling music, the video shows his jersey weathering storms, lightning and wind and tearing down the middle — like his left Achilles' tendon tore last April — before the jersey emerges whole once again and bathed in sunshine. Those images were followed by the words, "The Legend Continues . . . December 8."
That date may be remembered as the day the Lakers went from getting by to getting serious.
"He's a great player. So we're looking forward to playing with him again," Jodie Meeks said during a televised interview Friday after the Lakers rallied for a 106-100 victory at Sacramento. "Hopefully we can go on a big run and he'll be a big part of that."
Bryant has been practicing with the Lakers (10-9) for several weeks. A few days ago he ruled out making his return at Sacramento and instead stayed home to get in some extra work and prepare for the Raptors, the team he victimized for 81 points on Jan. 22, 2006.
Coach Mike D'Antoni told reporters he urged players to remember that after Bryant returns they must compete as hard as they did Friday in pressuring the Kings to crumble in the final minutes. He also said to expect some turbulence as Bryant is blended back into the lineup.
"Just put your seat belt on, we'll just get through it," D'Antoni said of his message to his team. "But we can't watch. We can't sit around and think he'll be our savior or whatever."
Bryant hasn't played since April 12, and there's no telling how effective he will be on 35-year-old legs and how much he will help the team. The Lakers still have some holes — the Kings scored 48 points in the paint against them Friday, a recurring problem — and it remains unclear when point guard Steve Nash will be able to play again.
But Bryant's return is sure to give a huge emotional lift to the Lakers, who have forged an identity of being a tenacious team with a deep and eager bench.
"I'm excited about him coming back," said Wesley Johnson, who had 13 points, one block and five steals Friday. "I know it's going to be surreal playing with him on Sunday. The crowd's going to be involved. . . . It's going to be fun."
D'Antoni changed the starting lineup Friday, inserting Robert Sacre at center and returning a struggling Jordan Hill to the bench. The move was effective early, as Sacre and Steve Blake (10 assists) clicked on several screen-and-roll plays.
But an 11-2 Sacramento run and an injection of energy off the bench from Isaiah Thomas helped the Kings take a 30-28 lead after one quarter while shooting 56% from the field. They extended their lead to 10 twice in the third quarter.
There are reasons the Kings have lost six straight, and those were evident when they faltered under pressure from the energetic Lakers in the fourth quarter.
The Lakers trailed, 87-81, after three quarters but kept the game close until they seized control in the final two minutes. Pau Gasol earned two of his 19 points by hitting a 19-foot jumper for a 98-97 lead with 1:30 left, and after a turnover by DeMarcus Cousins — one of six by the center and 17 by the Kings — Meeks (19 points) hit a three-point shot for a 101-97 lead. A steal by Johnson set up Nick Young's pull-up jumper for a 103-97 lead and the Lakers never looked back — only ahead to Bryant's return.
"We know Kobe will give his all," Xavier Henry said, "so we're going to give our all as well."
Elliott reported from Los Angeles.