In defeat, Kobe Bryant revels in these last battles with Kevin Durant

LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant fired from beyond the arc, and Kevin Durant sent the ball right back, blocking it with ease after stretching out his freakish wingspan that reaches nearly seven-and-a-half feet.

Bryant cracked a smile, and the Los Angeles Lakers' icon began to laugh.

"You long son of a ..." Bryant said he told the Oklahoma City Thunder star swingman.

The 37-year-old Bryant re-gathered the ball, and cut inside. He tried to pull up and fire a midrange jumper, but Durant, 10 years Bryant's junior, wasn't having it. He blocked him again, the second time on the same possession.

"I hadn't played against him in a while. I forgot how long he was," Bryant said Wednesday after the Thunder's 120-85 win over the Lakers at Staples Center.

In the past, Bryant wore an almost angry expression from start to finish, a sign of his ferocious competitive drive. But now that Bryant has announced his retirement, he is savoring not only the games but individual matchups against top-notch players, as he knows each one is that much closer to the end.

"I think I'm showing it a lot more because I'm so damn happy about it," Bryant said after scoring 19 points on 7-of-22 shooting in 28 minutes. "I'm thankful for it. But I've always enjoyed it to this magnitude. I've just enjoyed it internally. That's why I was always so anxious to go out and compete against these guys, because that's the most fun -- to try to figure those puzzles out."

To Bryant, those puzzles are even more fun when they're against the best of the best.

"Competition is a beautiful thing," he said. "It's like, you compete against a guy and you try different things and sometimes you get the best of them, sometimes they get the best of you. That back-and-forth at that level, it's fun."

Durant's Thunder demolished the Lakers for the second time in less than a week, but in the first half, Bryant got the better of both Durant (21 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists) and Russell Westbrook (23 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists) on two occasions when they each bit on his pump-fakes on separate occasions, earning Bryant trips to the free throw line.

Bryant laughed even harder at those instances because he said he worked with them all during the summer of 2012, when all three were members of the U.S. Men's Olympic basketball team, and specifically showed them how he had mastered his pump-fake.

"As soon as they fell for it, they knew," Bryant said. "It's like 'C'mon. Damn, seriously?' [They'd say], 'It looked like you were going to shoot.' I said, 'No s---. That's the point.' It felt good to get them with that one.

"That type of stuff is the stuff that I'll miss."

Perhaps the biggest compliment any high-level opponent could pay Bryant is not to take it easy on him during this final season, and Durant was happy to oblige, especially after Bryant sat out of Saturday's matchup in Oklahoma City because of a sore shoulder.

Durant said he was looking forward to guarding the five-time champion.

And from tipoff Wednesday, the two locked horns, going toe-to-toe for long stretches of the first half, with both players clearly enjoying and relishing the matchup.

"It was fun," Durant said. "I take on those challenges, man, and me and him are great friends, but he's the same way I am between those lines. We're going to go at each other, no matter what. We can laugh and we can joke throughout the game and talk to each other, but the whistle sounds, we're going to go at each other. And that's just how it is. It was a great challenge for me."

"You can train a cat all you want to bark. The damn cat is not going to bark. There's no sense in yelling at it. Simple as that."
Kobe Bryant, on why he doesn't take team defeats as hard this season

After Durant turned Bryant around with one of his signature crossovers in the second quarter, the two ran back down the court talking and laughing about it. Like everyone else in the world, it's weird for Durant to see Bryant smiling as much as he is during games.

"It is [weird]," Durant said. "But the thing is, he'll smile, but he's still going to bring it. That's the thing. We always look at guy's facial expressions and we want them to be straight-faced and always serious, but when the ball is in play, man, we're going to play the game and that's how I am. Tonight was no different. I challenged him, he challenged me. Nobody backed down. That's great basketball right there, that's all you want."

One might wonder -- how does Bryant keep a smile when his Lakers, who fell to 5-24, are getting pummeled?

"Listen, you have to be realistic about what we're facing and where we are right now as a team and as an organization," Bryant said. "You can train a cat all you want to bark. The damn cat is not going to bark. There's no sense in yelling at it. Simple as that."

Bryant said he knew Wednesday was going to be fun before it began, specifically because he'd be facing Durant. "Hell yeah," Bryant said.

And as the schedule ticks down, Bryant is looking forward to more matchups of that ilk, and he mentioned Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and James Harden by name.

"All the marquee guys," Bryant said. "It's like, going through it one more time, you get a chance to match up with them a little bit. I wish I had a chance to guard Russell [Westbrook] a little bit tonight, because those are the things that I'll miss. It's those matchups."

Bryant will face Durant twice more this season, including in Bryant's final road game April 11. The two had dinner together last Friday in Oklahoma City, and following the game Wednesday the two stars exchanged shoes. Bryant wrote on the pair he gave Durant, "To KD: Be the greatest!" and signed his name. Asked about the exchange, Durant joked, "Don't tell nobody though, man. I don't want to be looked at as a softie."