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Kobe Bryant savors what could be final battles with Dirk Nowitzki

DALLAS -- Nearly four decades of combined NBA experience battled on the left block Friday. Dirk Nowitzki had the ball and Kobe Bryant was trying to stop him.

What happened next at American Airlines Center resembled an elite chess match between two savvy foes who have faced off for a basketball eternity, who surely know each other's moves and countermoves as well as they know their own.

Bryant knew he was caught in a lopsided mismatch, as he surrenders half a foot in height to the Dallas Mavericks' star 7-footer who boasts a fadeaway jumper that is virtually unstoppable because of its sky-high release point.

But Bryant came up with a plan.

"I haven't been able to get to his fadeaway, so I was timing him up to try and catch him before he gets up high, because he's too damn tall," the Los Angeles Lakers' superstar said Friday after the Mavericks' 90-82 win.

"Once he gets up there, I can't get it. So I figured I'd try to catch him."

In other words, he'd swipe at the ball before Nowitzki brought it up, hoping to knock it loose.

But Nowitzki, in his 18th season, knew full well what Bryant, in his 20th, was planning to do.

"He was talking to me and he was kind of sitting on that fadeaway," Nowitzki said. "I was kind of hoping he would."

So Nowitzki used fancy footwork and a pump-fake to make it seem as though he was stepping back to take one of his classic jumpers. Once Bryant bit on the bait and jumped, Nowitzki used an up-and-under move to finish an easy layup.

The two 37-year-olds smiled at each other as they ran back down the court.

"Just having a little fun with some friendly competition," said Nowitzki, who scored nine points on 4-of-13 shooting.

"Just two old guys having fun," said Bryant, who scored 19 points on 7-of-15 shooting in his return from a two-game absence because of a sore back.

As Bryant makes his way through a season-long unofficial farewell tour, he's treasuring so many moments, especially matchups against familiar faces.

"I love playing with Dirk," Bryant said. "It's rare that I play against somebody that came up around the same era that I did. It's good to see him."

Said Nowitzki, "He looked great today, had a couple of days off and really got them off to a hot start. It's always good to see. He's a legend."

Bryant is also savoring the road atmospheres, which are far friendlier to him than when his combination of talent, skill and athleticism made him a destructive force.

Now, purple and gold No. 24 and No. 8 jerseys are spotted throughout opposing crowds, and fans rush toward the court to snap photos of him at game's end -- especially if it's at an arena he may never play in again, as was the case here Friday night.

"It's funny, because there's a lot of Mavs fans that normally heckle the s--- out of me," Bryant said. "They let me have it. [Friday night], they didn't. It was just high-fives and best-of-luck sort of thing."

He added, "It is strange, but honestly, if I had to pick, I'd have it that way. At the start of the game, they're very thankful. But during the game it's, 'We hate you' and 'boo,' and then at the end of the game, it's, 'Thank you.'"

If anything, Bryant gave the Dallas crowd a few glimpses of the player he used to be. He hit six of his first eight shots, scoring 14 points in 14 minutes en route to his most efficient performance this season. The fans rewarded him with a standing ovation when he checked out with 14.8 seconds left.

Bryant credited his back feeling better. He also wore sleeves, as he did last week during the first half of a loss to the New York Knicks.

"Keep my [right] shoulder warm," Bryant explained. "Got to make sure this bad boy stays loose."

Every little bit helps. But there's a noticeable change beyond whatever he's wearing to help maintain his body. During games, there are smiles where there were once scowls. There's even less trash talk from opponents.

"They don't give me grief, honestly, anymore," Bryant said. "Like [Dallas guard] Devin Harris, he grew up in high school watching me. Now this is his 12th year. So we just talk about that sort of stuff. I don't get grief anymore, man."

Instead, there's celebration. And at game's end, Bryant remains on the court, shaking hands, giving out hugs, conversing, hearing plenty of thank-yous, and posing for pictures.

And before leaving arenas he may never return to, Bryant lingers in the hallways outside the locker room, making time for the inevitable swell of well-wishers -- including many opposing players -- who come to see him at game's end.

All signs seem to indicate this will be his final season, even if Bryant hasn't firmly committed to that idea just yet.

Until that decision is made, his unofficial farewell tour rolls on. Every stop could be his last. So he soaks it all in, even a battle on the left block against a savvy foe, when two old guys can just have fun.