SAN DIEGO -- The last time Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash put on their Los Angeles Lakers uniforms and started a game together, Dwight Howard was still their teammate, Mike D'Antoni was still their coach and the thought of competing for a championship was an immediate goal rather than a long-term project.
On Monday, for the first time in 555 days, Bryant and Nash, the final remaining pieces of the Lakers' failed experiment of two seasons ago, started a game together. More important, they finished the 98-95 victory over the Denver Nuggets healthy and able to play another day together.
That might seem like a joke, but it's a painful fact for anyone who has followed the Lakers and their aging veterans over the past two seasons. The last time Bryant and Nash started a game together -- March 30, 2013 -- Nash left within the first two minutes with a right hamstring injury. Two weeks later, Bryant ruptured his Achilles tendon and, well, you know the rest.
Last season, Bryant played in only six games while recovering from that tear, then suffered a fracture in his left knee when he returned. Nash played in only 15 games because of nerve-root irritation in his left leg. In none of those games were they together.
Monday might have been only a preseason game, but it provided the first glimpse in a year and half of what Bryant and Nash would look like as teammates and it was, as expected, a beautiful sight.
There was Bryant with a fadeaway jumper near the baseline, followed by Nash driving into the paint and feeding Carlos Boozer for an easy layup. They both played a little more than 20 minutes, starting the first and second halves as was the plan before the game. Bryant finished with 13 points, five assists and two rebounds, and Nash had 11 points, five assists and one rebound.
“It was real easy,” Bryant said. “It’s extremely effortless to play with him. You get the ball to him and run and let him make decisions. We can do a lot in the two-man game so it’s pretty easy.”
When Bryant and Nash weren’t on the court, they were often talking to each other on the bench, which has often been the case during practice, when they sit out the final portions or skip altogether the second practice of two-a-days.
“Kobe made some shots; it was great to see a lot of his patented tough fadeaways,” Nash said. “It got guys off their feet, I thought it was a great first step for him. He looked like he’s going to round into a pretty decent ballplayer here.”
Not only were they on the court together, but for the first time in more than 18 months they actually looked like themselves. There’s no reversing the hands of time. Bryant is still 36 and Nash is still 40. Both are still coming back from serious injuries, but Monday was the first time in a while that their ages and injuries were not the focus.
“Kobe just looked like Kobe,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said. “The way he was moving. The way he was able to do that patented fallaway. He was able to take advantage of his length and his size with some of the guys they had on him. ... I thought Steve looked good. I hope he can [sustain it]. Only time will tell.”
Bryant and Nash said during the first week of training camp that they feel as good as they have in a while. It’s hard to know exactly what that means when you’re simply going through practices and drills and the occasional scrimmage. Monday was the first time they were able to test themselves against other NBA players in a game-type setting, and it confirmed everything they felt, which is the best news the Lakers have had since, well, both were injured.
“I felt fine,” Bryant said. “I felt like I could do anything I wanted. This is the healthiest I’ve been in a couple years, three years maybe.”
Said Nash: “It felt great to be back out there. You know it’s been a long summer and obviously for me it’s been a long two years, so just to be out there and feel pretty free was nice. Still got a lot of work to do, but one preseason game under the belt, it feels good."
It would be hard to find a backcourt with a collective résumé as distinguished as that of Bryant's and Nash's. After coming into the NBA as members of the 1996 draft, they have totaled 24 All-Star Games, five titles and three MVPs. A healthy Bryant will pass Michael Jordan as the third-leading scorer in NBA history this season. Nash is third on the all-time assists list. Every time the pair steps on the court, fans are treated to two of the greatest guards ever, playing in one of their final games. Bryant’s current two-year deal will take him to 20 seasons and will likely be his last. Nash, who turns 41 in February, has all but said this is his final season.
As will likely be the case with these young Lakers, Bryant was an extension of the coaching staff on the court and on the bench Monday. By the end of the game, Bryant had had a conversation with nearly every teammate. He coached Wayne Ellington and Jordan Clarkson on defensive positioning and where to keep their arms. He talked to Nash and Carlos Boozer about missed opportunities when they had numbers in transition. And he pulled Julius Randle aside and told him to be aggressive down low to get defensive rebounds.
When Scott addressed the team, Bryant would silently nod his head and look at his young teammates. When Scott was done, Bryant would pull a player or two aside to expand on what Scott told them. It was the kind of role Bryant simply didn’t have or wasn’t interested in having last season, when he was basically nonexistent on the bench during the latter stages.
This season, Bryant and Nash are not only healthy for the first time in years, but they are also happy, which was rarely the case over the previous two.
No one knows how many more games Bryant and Nash will start together. The Lakers had to wait 555 days just to see them reunited on the court. During that time, essentially everything about the team changed around them. Bryant and Nash have stayed, however, and if they can find a way to remain on the court, the Lakers might actually be worth watching this season.