LOS ANGELES -- With Kobe Bryant in turn-back-the-clock mode and Staples Center rocking as if the rivalry between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers had been rewound to its most recent glory days, Celtics forward Jae Crowder sought out Bryant with a question.
"I said, 'Are you sure you're gonna retire this year?' " Crowder said. Bryant scored a game-high 34 points on 11-of-28 shooting and helped rally the Lakers back from a 17-point first-half deficit before the Celtics emerged with a 107-100 triumph.
You'd have hardly known the Lakers were a 16-win team with the "Boston sucks!" chants that bounced around Staples Center early and often Sunday. As Bryant scored 11 first-quarter points, the crowd serenaded him with "MVP!" chants.
Asked about Bryant's performance, Celtics coach Brad Stevens noted, "Two things crossed our [coaching] staff's mind; we just talked about it: No. 1 is, as much as we enjoy watching on TV, I'm glad that we never [have to play against Bryant] again. No. 2 is, I can't imagine what it was like 10 years ago. Because he looked like he was 29 out there and I know what I feel like at 39. He's an amazing athlete, an amazing player. Hats off to him."
The Celtics, many of whom have professed their admiration for Bryant during this season's farewell tour, marveled at his scoring output Sunday. Things got a bit uncomfortable for Boston in the third quarter when the Lakers, a team that had already beaten the Celtics on the road in December, rallied ahead.
Boston composed itself, kept Los Angeles at arm's length and produced a win that punched the Celtics' ticket to the postseason. Boston currently sits as the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference, tied with the Atlanta Hawks with a 45-32 record with five games to play in the regular season.
The Lakers have only six games left, including three more Bryant home games at Staples Center. Sunday's Celtics-Lakers game was an expensive ticket for those trying to catch Bryant's last game against Boston and, with the benefit of multiple days of rest, the 20-year veteran showed he was worth the price of admission.
He wasn't particularly efficient scoring and the Lakers were outscored by four points during his 33 minutes of floor time. But Bryant clearly had a little extra motivation because of Sunday's opponent.
"It's weird. Last time facing the green," Bryant said. "But it's been a joy to be able to go against them, to be a part of a rivalry that I watched for so long."
The Celtics have no players remaining from the 2010 team that lost to the Lakers in the Finals (avenging Boston's 2008 triumph). Avery Bradley -- Boston's longest-tenured player and a 2010 draftee who could at least relate to how the rivalry used to be -- wasn't with the team Sunday because of personal reasons.
Bryant admitted that the Celtics still invigorate him, even with a 30-win difference in the standings between Boston and Los Angeles this season. And he hopes the younger players take the time to understand what the Celtics-Lakers rivalry means to the NBA.
"The guys that don't get it, I don’t understand it. If you’re a basketball player, you want to know everything about the game," Bryant said. "Like, the history of the game. I wonder how many of them have actually seen [Larry] Bird play, or seen Magic [Johnson] play, for that matter? They weren't even born. Some of them were barely born when I first started playing. The idea of seeing Magic and Bird play, and James Worthy and all these guys, is probably really a foreign concept. Which is really strange."
Bryant detailed again the joys of the 2010 Finals victory and explained how Celtics legend Bill Russell served as a mentor for him ("He's been an invaluable ear and voice for me in my career," Bryant said.) The final chapter of his Celtics rivalry will be remembered for the way he played.
"He looked like the old Kobe," Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas said. "From the jump, from the first play. He just had a different energy about him. You knew it was probably going to be a long night because he felt good."
Thomas, who had a private one-on-one with Bryant before the Lakers visited Boston in December, was asked if he had any notable memories of Bryant. The Celtics' All-Star point guard then told a story about trying to defend Bryant during Thomas' first game in the league on Dec. 26, 2011.
"My first year, it was my first game and [former Sacramento Kings coach] Paul Westphal, he had a rule in practice like nobody could back me down because they always turned the ball over. When [Westphal] subbed me in he said, 'You got Kobe. Remember, nobody can back you down.' I said, 'Man, don't lie to me. That's Kobe.' [Westphal] tried to hype me too much. That was probably the best memory that I have. But he backed me down three straight possessions and scored on me. And I'm just laughing all the way down; that's my first game. That was my best memory."
Thomas, raised a Bryant fan by his die-hard Lakers fan father, admitted he's happy to send Bryant into retirement with a loss in his final game against Boston. But he still admires him.
"That's the best player of my generation. He changed the game, not just on the court, but off the court," Thomas said. "He means a lot. That's my favorite player, so it means a lot to share the same court with him and be able to compete against him."