Kobe, LeBron all smiles near rivalry's end

LeBron James laughs with Kobe Bryant after a missed dunk in front of J.R. Smith during the first half of the Cavaliers' 109-102 win. Harry How/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES -- They started joking back and forth in the second quarter. While one of his teammates shot free throws on one end of the court, LeBron James stood on the other, next to the Lakers' bench, sharing laughs with Kobe Bryant.

They continued yukking it up throughout Thursday night, and after James’ Cavaliers beat Bryant’s Lakers 109-102, the two had a long embrace and more laughs at center court. Then they greeted each other again in the tunnel on their way out of the Staples Center, chatted, hugged and laughed some more.

Although they acted like they were teammates more than opponents, Bryant pointed out after the game that he wasn’t always so friendly with certain members of the opposition, including James.

“It’s a little different now,” Bryant said after scoring 19 points and tallying a career-high 17 assists in the loss. “Some years ago, both competing for championships, it was a little different. It was a lot more moody. Now it’s a little different. I’ve got a chance to really appreciate the competition and enjoy that interaction. We’ve gotten to know each other really well over the years. It’s good to see him.”

James agreed.

“It’s always fun and a pleasure,” the Cavaliers’ star said after scoring a game-high 36 points. “There are two big competitors, and to be on the same court as him, who I looked up to when I was a child, growing up and seeing him go from high school straight into the NBA, you know, it’s fun. It’s great. I hated him being out of the league because of the injury, but it’s fun having him back.”

James added of the matchup, "You don’t take that for granted, for sure. You don’t have many guys that come through this sport like Kobe.”

Bryant, 36, mentioned that he has more perspective at this point, knowing that he doesn’t have much time left in the NBA in general.

“I really won’t get a chance to play against [James] on the court for much longer," Bryant said. "You want to enjoy it.”

Other players seemed to get that sense as well Thursday, even during the course of the game.

“It was great to be a part of it,” said Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving, who scored 22 points. “[They are] two great players going at it. I want to be part of that as a competitor. Who knows how long that will last?”

Cavaliers coach David Blatt said he wasn’t thinking about the Bryant-James matchup until after the game.

“Now that I have a chance to reflect a little bit, yes, that’s very special,” Blatt said. “For the fans, for the players that are involved, for all of us, those are two all-time greats going at it and going at it like two prize fighters within the context of the team. ... It’s great to see two guys at that level playing the game at such a level for so many years and still involving their teammates in the way that they did.”

James and Bryant have never squared off in the NBA Finals, and Bryant said he wished that could have happened.

“Absolutely, which makes me appreciate what I grew up watching with Magic [Johnson] and [Larry] Bird,” Bryant said, “because you understand how hard it is to get to those Finals, let alone as a fan, seeing the two best players in the league match up with each other in the Finals over and over. We were just really, really fortunate, all of us, to see that happen. As a player growing up, once you get to that level, you want to have that same kind of rivalry, you know what I mean? It just never happened.”

But if opposing players and coaches are talking about appreciating Bryant, or if television announcers are reminding viewers to do the same during a nationally televised broadcast, as they did Thursday, well, that feels new and just a bit awkward for him.

“This is different for me, man, because I’m used to being hated,” Bryant said. “It’s really unnatural. It’s like, you go up against somebody and they give you a hug -- ‘Wait. What the hell are you doing? You’re supposed to say something nasty.’ It’s a different feeling, but I’m really appreciative of it. It feels good. Getting a hug feels good.”