Heat's Dwyane Wade relishes final clashes with Kobe Bryant

MIAMI -- They've combined for eight NBA championships, 28 All-Star appearances and more than 50,000 points as the two most accomplished shooting guards of their era.

But Dwyane Wade embraces the distinction that sets Kobe Bryant apart.

"I do feel -- and I've said this before the last couple of years with LeBron [James], when he became the best player in our game -- that Kobe Bryant is the greatest player of our era," Wade said. "The Kobe Bryants aren't around no more. There are good young players, but there will never be another Kobe. So every opportunity you get to [face him], you want to seize that moment."

With Bryant, 37, contemplating retirement after his 20th season, Tuesday could be the final time Wade seizes a moment on the court with Bryant at AmericanAirlines Arena, where the Los Angeles Lakers visit the Miami Heat. Miami (4-3) is searching for consistency early after alternating wins and losses through its first seven games. The Lakers (1-5), on the other hand, are a complete mess right now.

They've lost five of their first six games and Bryant is off to the least productive start of his career since he became a full-time starter entering his third season in the league -- way back in 1998-99. But when Bryant takes the court Tuesday, Wade won't see the player shooting a dismal 32.0 percent from the field and 20.8 percent from 3-point range. He won't conjure visions of the brittle Bryant who saw his past two seasons cut short by surgeries and debilitating shoulder, knee and Achilles injuries.

"You hear about the guy being down, struggling with his shot and going through all of those other things," Wade said Monday. "But what I'll always see is the guy who has dominated this game at his position for a long time, who performed at a high level for 20 years."

Don't fault Wade for being blinded by competitive loyalty. Bryant's legendary mark on the game has largely overshadowed his production of late, yet a lucrative two-year extension signed in 2013 ensured he'd have the league's highest salary at $25 million this season. Bryant remains a major attraction at every stop along the way, particularly during his lone visits to Eastern Conference cities in what already has the feeling of an unofficial farewell tour through the NBA.

Bryant reiterated during the Lakers' two-game weekend set in New York that he hasn't decided if this season would be his last, but he did say he will go out as a Laker. Bryant has engaged longer with fans and arena officials during this road trip, often signing autographs, posing for photos and soaking in the scenes.

All, perhaps, for the final time.

"I always try to take a look around, always try to kind of embrace the moment and kind of feel the energy a little bit," Bryant told reporters over the weekend. "Is it a little different this time around? Yeah. The biggest sign of respect to me would be to approach it just like it was any other game, and try to kick our butt just like it was any other game."

The defiant attitude and competitive nature are what Wade admires most about Bryant as their relationship has grown the past few years. Those icy moments a decade ago, fueled by Shaquille O'Neal's bitter departure from Bryant in Los Angeles to join Wade in Miami, eventually warmed once O'Neal no longer stood between the two as a playful but at times petty instigator.

Immediately after Heat-Lakers games the past few seasons, Wade often sought out Bryant for both advice on his mental approach to the game as well as to check on his injury rehab. After the Heat's win in Los Angeles in January, Wade sent word from the Heat's locker room to make sure Bryant didn't leave Staples Center until the two had time to talk. A year earlier, Bryant hung out at the Heat's arena long after the game for photos with Wade's family.

But don't let the friendly ways fool you.

"I mean, I broke the guy's nose in the All-Star Game, for goodness sakes, and we're still cordial," Wade said of the 2012 game in Orlando, Florida, where matters grew heated as they defended one another. "He respects competitiveness. He knows I did it, but I wasn't trying to. He's a competitor. I'm competitive. We have that in common."

What they also share is a proud but fading view from the mountaintop at their position. With five NBA titles and ranked third on the NBA's career scoring list (32,581 points), Bryant is regarded as the second-best shooting guard in history behind Michael Jordan. Wade has three titles from five trips to the NBA Finals, and could land in the top-40 on the scoring list by the end of this season.

Wade appreciates Bryant's vigor to fight to the finish line, even as the next crop of superstars emerge at shooting guard, including James Harden, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler and Bradley Beal.

"No matter what he's done, no matter how many championships he's won, he's still the most competitive guy in the gym," Wade said of Bryant. "It's something I want to emulate. No matter how many great young talents come in, you still want to be respected. It's not easy to go through it, to be as great as he is and be picked apart [by criticism]. You go through so many evolutions in your game, but you're still here, no matter what."

Ask Wade and Heat forward Chris Bosh for their defining Bryant moments, and they simultaneously drift to the summer of 2008. It was 10 days after the Lakers lost to Boston in the Finals, and Team USA had convened for its first mini-camp meeting in preparation for the Beijing Olympics. Spoiler alert: It's quintessential Kobe.

"We're in Las Vegas and we all come down for team breakfast at the start of the whole training camp," Bosh said. "And Kobe comes in with ice on his knees and with his trainers and stuff. He's got sweat drenched through his workout gear. And I'm like, 'It's 8 o'clock in the morning, man. Where in the hell is he coming from?'"

Wade chimes in along memory lane.

"Everybody else just woke up. We're still stretching and yawning and looking at [Kobe] like, 'What the f---?'" Wade said as he squinted into a frown and then burst into laughter. "We're all yawning, and he's already three hours and a full workout into his day."

Bosh interrupts.

"You never forget stuff like that," Bosh said. "I felt so bad. I'm like, ‘What is he trying to prove?' But he was just doing his normal routine. We're all supposed to be big-time NBA players, Olympians and stuff. And then there's Kobe, taking it to another level from Day 1. And I had been off for like three months."

Bryant's approach spoke volumes that morning, although he never uttered a word to Wade, Bosh, LeBron, Carmelo or anyone else.

To Kobe, it was no big deal. After all, who doesn't get in a grueling workout before sunrise on the opening day of summer camp?

"We're all sitting there thinking, 'Man, I've got to reevaluate what I'm doing as a player,'" Wade said. "That set the tone for pretty much everybody. But that's always been Kobe."

And to his fiercest peers, that always will be Kobe.