Unofficially, what Bryant accomplished in the final stages of the West's 152-149 victory to hold off a ferocious rally from the East on Sunday at the Amway Center could have a greater impact than any of the 27 points he scored to bring his All-Star total to 271.
Every bit as meaningful as the points he scored was the point he made.
This isn't about the NBA icon Kobe replaced. Instead, the focus ended up being more on the late-game exchange he had with another preeminent superstar by whom he's being chased. Kobe spent the final seconds of Sunday's game playfully yet pointedly chastising LeBron James for passing -- not once, but twice -- instead of taking a shot that could have tied the game or sent it into overtime.
The second of LeBron's two passes -- a poorly thrown skip pass -- was picked off by Blake Griffin with the East trailing 152-149 and just 1.9 seconds left in the game. As Griffin was being fouled after the steal, an animated Bryant walked over to LeBron and pleaded with him to shoot the ball in that situation.
What may have made LeBron's preference to pass so puzzling to Kobe was that he had already tied an All-Star Game record by making six 3-pointers.
"Yeah, he was telling me to shoot it," LeBron said afterward, still sounding dejected from a late-game breakdown that soured a performance in which he had 36 points, seven assists and six rebounds to nearly lead the East back from a 21-point second-half deficit. "I [saw] my teammate open for a split-second. When I tried to throw it late, that's what usually happens and it results in a turnover. Definitely, I wish I could have that one back."
Regret. There is that dreadful place LeBron too often seems to lock himself into when he comes up short under the brightest lights and on the biggest stages. Yes, the All-Star Game is a meaningless exhibition that counts for absolutely nothing in the standings. And yes, LeBron's record-breaking efficiency and overall play through 34 games this season as the likely MVP frontrunner with the Miami Heat won't be undone by the final nine seconds he played Sunday night.
But there's no denying that this was another one of those episode. We all know the ones. They get replayed when LeBron wants too desperately to be a facilitator when he should be a determined finisher and attack the same way late in close games as he does most of the night leading to that point.
You know these are strange and irritating tendencies when even Kobe, who wants nothing more than a shot to knock LeBron and the Heat out should they ever meet in the NBA Finals, is the one so publicly trying to prop him up in moments like this. What we didn't know at the time of Kobe's on-court talk with LeBron was that he was still feeling the effects of a blow he had taken to the head earlier in the game from Dwyane Wade on a drive to the basket.
Ironically, it was the blow that sent Kobe, with blood dripping from his nose, to the free-throw line for the two points that pulled him into a tie with Jordan for the All-Star scoring record. Kobe finished the game and delivered his message to James, but did not speak with the media afterward because he was being evaluated for headaches following the game (a CT scan revealed a broken nose.)
So the last words we saw from Kobe were the ones to LeBron. It's strange how this Jordan-Kobe-LeBron triangle works. Despite the five championship rings, All-Star and season MVPs and the general consensus that Kobe is the best shooting guard of his generation, critics constantly remind him that he'll never be Jordan. And despite two MVP awards, scoring titles and recognition as the league's best overall player today, LeBron's critics insist he'll always lack Kobe's so-called clutch gene.
So perhaps Kobe's comments to LeBron were the products of both support and sympathy. On a night when Kobe took another step in padding his own legacy, he left the court trying to help address a contemporary on a perceived weakness.
This was atypical Kobe. He normally spends his nights trying to crush his opponent. Not correct him. Just count it among Kobe's many contributions to the game.
"Tonight, he does what he normally does," Wade said of Bryant. "He got 27. He's Kobe Bryant. He scores the ball. He's a tough cover. But it's great being a little piece of history. He's one of the best of all time. We will one day say we had the honor of playing against one of the greatest players to ever play the game of basketball."
Wade also suggested that Kobe might not have the All-Star scoring record for long considering how Kevin Durant, the MVP of Sunday's game, led the West with 36 points to bring his total to 85 in just three All-Star appearances. LeBron has scored 207 career points in the league's mid-season showcase game and will also soon be closing in on Kobe.
But there's no one in the league quite like Kobe as a closer. And he showed no signs of pain when he was ragging LeBron on one of the very few problems in his game.
"That's the type of guy he is," West coach Scott Brooks said. "He's not going to let anybody know that he was in pain or had any issues. The guy is as competitive as I've seen. He was going to give everything and not let us know. That's what makes him the special player that he is."
Kobe was special enough to catch Jordan in the third quarter Sunday.
And spirited enough to plead with LeBron to stop passing in the fourth.