Cover me: LeBron outdoes Kobe in head-to-head defense

CLEVELAND -- In the NBA in December, this is about as good as the theater gets.

A tight game in the final moments, crowd on its feet, two of the best players in the world guarding each other and looking to be the hero. LeBron James and Kobe Bryant didn't quite have the Hollywood ending
-- the game ended with a thud and not a splash -- but they did provide some drama.

During a timeout with just over three minutes left to play the same discussion was held in both huddles.
James wanted to cover Bryant and told teammate Sasha Pavlovic to go guard someone else, in pretty much those exact terms. Bryant gave his directive to coach Phil Jackson, who wasn't totally sold, but went with his star's wishes.

"Why not?" Bryant said later. "I look forward to those matchups, that's what I do as a defensive player."

"If you want to win ballgames, you have to be able to defend the best player," James said. "I think we both took on the challenge."

They had all last summer. When Team USA practiced, James looked for a chance to guard Bryant at any chance and described the sessions as "very intense."

They may be summer teammates and both wear the swoosh, but they are far from close. James, after all, came down on Shaquille O'Neal's side in the Laker Wars.

James went right at Bryant, nailing a 17-footer to tie the game. Then, moments later, he got free from Bryant off a screen and turned the corner and drew a foul. His two free throws with 1:44 left gave the Cavs the lead.

So when Bryant got his hands on the ball with about seven seconds to play and his team still down those two points, he wanted to end it. He spun, rocked and hoisted a 3-pointer over James' fingertips. He may have preferred to drive past James, but a sore groin may have changed his mind. The rotation and the aim were true, but Bryant's touch was just a little off as it banged the back of the rim.

" I knew he was going for the win. I turned around and it looked like it was going to go in," James said.

When the Cavs got a favorable whistle when Daniel Gibson and Derek Fisher collided, James and his club were able to wrestle away a 94-90 victory. It was a big one for the Cavs, who had lost nine of 11 games including an embarrassing blowout at Madison Square Garden Wednesday night. It was a cooler for the Lakers, who had won seven of eight.

LeBron's now taken the last four meetings with Kobe, though they've taken turns outplaying each other individually. This one went James' way in about every category. He put up 33 points, extending his lead over Bryant in the race for the scoring title slightly, with 10 rebounds and five assists.

Bryant wasn't his usual self with the groin issue, which has been bothering him for a week. He made just
8-of-22 shots for 21 points, though he did come up with a huge offensive rebound with 10 seconds left that earned the Lakers one extra possession.

"I was pretty frustrated," Bryant said. "I can't explode like I want to I've got to rely on my jump shot a lot more."

Bryant was just 1-of-6 shooting in the fourth, when the Cavs held the Lakers to 5-of-22 overall and just
12 points. It was the sort of defensive effort, combined with James' heroics, that was the trademark of so many Cavs' victories in their remarkable run to the Finals last season. And the sort of stuff that has been missing for much of this year.

But both James and Bryant know it's just one round in their ongoing battle, one sure to be rekindled next month at Staples Center and again in private Team USA practices next summer in China.

"We just made more plays at the end of the game to win," James said. "It's a long season."

Brian Windhorst covers the Cavs and the NBA for the Akron Beacon Journal.