With Bryant's final game in the state of Texas over, James Harden was doing what his idol used to do in his prime: Take over games.
Harden scored 20 fourth-quarter points in leading the Houston Rockets past the Lakers 130-110 in front of a noisy Toyota Center crowd. For the afternoon, Harden scored 40 points, while Bryant added 35. It was this fourth-quarter stretch in which Harden made a mess of Metta World Peace and whoever else was guarding him to secure the game for the Rockets.
“I was sitting on the sideline watching him go off,” Bryant said. “James is such a fantastic player. All I can do is sit on the sideline and shake my head at some of the plays he was making, the shots he was making. Those are difficult shots for 90 percent of the players in the league. He makes them look effortless.”
Houston can't afford anymore slip-ups. One loss -- just one -- in the final week of the season equals doom. It doesn't matter what the Utah Jazz or even the Dallas Mavericks do; Houston has to win all its games.
The Lakers were playing for pride and were making things miserable for the Rockets until Harden took over. He was being smothered by defenders, much like what Dallas did to him Wednesday in a Rockets loss. Somehow, Harden was able to get free to make plays. With the Rockets lead just two points, Harden drove the lane after a timeout and hit a floater over World Peace to push the lead to four.
Harden assisted on a Jason Terry bucket, and then World Peace hit a jumper -- like he was Ron Artest at St. John's -- to cut the Rockets' deficit to four.
Then Harden took over. He scored on a dunk, thanks to a Terry steal, and on the next possession, he hit a 27-foot pull-up 3-pointer over World Peace. The lead was nine when Byron Scott called timeout with 7:15 left.
Bryant could only watch with amazement as the kid he helped groom showed how special he has become.
“I think it's kind of a passing of the torch thing,” Patrick Beverley said. “They're really good friends, Lakers, Cali, of course. James has worked with him before, learned a lot from him.”
Harden wasn't finished. He hit another jumper, a 3 over Tarik Black to push the Rockets to a 105-96 lead. To close the show, Harden hit a step-back 3 with 6:04 remaining, which increased the lead to 12. As the crowd went crazy, Harden strolled down the court and did a shimmy.
“I mean, obviously, you grow up against a guy you watch and a guy you admire since when you were younger, [and] in the last time you play him you want to play really well,” J.B. Bickerstaff said. “James has been really good all year long ... it's a special feeling to play against a guy that's aging, that he grew up watching, a team he grew up watching. I think it's a special moment for him.”
The win kept the Rockets alive for a potential playoff berth, though their chances dwindle by the day with victories by Utah and Dallas. Missing the playoffs would constitute an epic failure for this franchise, but Houston remains a game behind the eighth-seeded Jazz for the final playoff spot with three games remaining.
When his Sunday afternoon was over, Harden shared an embrace with Bryant and a talk at midcourt -- a conversation that apparently forced Bryant to put Harden in a playful headlock.
“It means everything -- just him embracing the city of Houston on his way out,” said Harden, who wore a pair of Crazy 1s sneakers, Bryant's shoes when he was with Adidas. “On a side note, I just told him we need ya'll to beat Utah. We just need some help. But other than that, it was exciting just to see him go out the right way. The NBA is doing it the right way in every single game. In every arena he goes to, they're cheering on a legend. It's just a great feeling.”