LOS ANGELES -- "We can't help who we are," Kobe Bryant once said, in a semi-serious conclusion to a playful post-news conference exchange, and that observation was never more relevant than in his final matchup with LeBron James on Thursday night.
Their disparate approach to basketball was evident from the opening quarter. The different stages of their careers were evident when they were on the bench in the final quarter, when Kobe needed to have his shoulder worked on while LeBron was joking with his business manager Maverick Carter and Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton from across the court.
This wasn't a last reprise of the Kobe-LeBron rivalry because, as Kobe said, "It's not a rivalry."
"To me, rivalries aren't made in the regular season," Bryant said. And since they never met in the playoffs, no matter how much the fans and media and puppet commercials clamored for it -- no rivalry. Not even "friendly rivals." "I don't like anybody that much," Kobe said.
It wasn't even a battle for current supremacy, because LeBron moved past Kobe years ago, and the multitude of injuries to Bryant kept Kobe from getting back into that conversation.
What it was instead was a character study, and Kobe and LeBron played their roles and stayed in their lanes until the very end. Kobe's method is to singularly attack, to beat you into submission by relentlessly scoring. LeBron wants to get everyone involved, and he wants to have fun in the process. Kobe came out firing, taking twice as many shots as LeBron in the first quarter (6-3), while LeBron had more assists in the first quarter than Kobe had all game (3-2). Kobe won the final scoring battle, 26-24, and LeBron had seven assists, two blocked shots and his Cavaliers left Staples Center with the 120-108 victory.
Kobe went at LeBron every chance he could, using the few remaining weapons in his arsenal: fallaway jumpers and pump fakes and footwork. LeBron generally took it easy on Kobe. He blew past him once for a dunk, which actually left Kobe laughing, but for the most part he showed respect to his elder. LeBron instead punished the other Lakers, including one bruising drive to the hoop that left both D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle crumpled on the ground.
It was a far cry from Kobe's last go at Michael Jordan, when Kobe lit up the 40-year-old Washington Wizard for 42 points in the first half, 55 for the game.
"Kobe and LeBron are just wired differently, something LeBron recognized back in 2006 when he told ESPN The Magazine that he wasn't like Kobe in that he didn't have the desire to 'just kill everybody.'"
Kobe and LeBron are just wired differently, something LeBron recognized in 2006 when he told ESPN The Magazine that he wasn't like Kobe in that he didn't have the desire to "just kill everybody." I relayed that quote to Kobe after I saw it, and Kobe wondered why LeBron would ever say something like that publicly.
A few days later the Cavs were in town to play the Lakers. In the final five seconds of the fourth quarter, LeBron missed a free throw that could have tied the score, and an 18-foot jumper that could have won the game. As Kobe walked out of the Lakers' locker room that night I asked him if he remembered our conversation from the week before.
"Yeah," Kobe said.
Did he think it came into play in this game?
"Yeah," he said.
LeBron found a way to win in his own manner, of course, once he departed for Miami, suffered through the 2011 NBA Finals, then bounced back to win the next two championships. He has become a fixture in June, reaching five consecutive NBA Finals in Miami and back in Cleveland.
I always felt that LeBron benefitted from an up-close look at Kobe's searing intensity in their time together on the 2008 Olympic team, and Kobe realized he would be better off incorporating some of LeBron's ability to incorporate his teammates. LeBron didn't go for that theory, saying, "It's not like I took anything back." But he did note that "all of us had some really, really good campaigns after that run we had in the Olympics."
LeBron won the next two MVP awards; Kobe won the next two championships. But by the time they reconvened for the 2012 Olympics the balance had unquestionably shifted to LeBron, with Kevin Durant sliding in between them. Even while falling short in last year's NBA Finals, LeBron won more playoff series in 2015 than Kobe has won in the past five years.
Kobe saw what was happening in 2012 and became the voice of that team, if he couldn't be its face, and took on duties such as clapping back at Jordan when MJ doubted the 2012 squad's ability to beat the 1992 Dream Team.
It was the first step toward the more candid Kobe that we've seen in recent years, especially this season. Thursday night Kobe said he hadn't been more collegial with the media in years past because he was focused on the demanding task of winning a championship. With that off the table in this Lakers rebuilding year, he can focus on being friendly during his farewell tour. But he says he thinks LeBron, who desperately wants to get another ring, needs an ornery amigo in his locker room.
"You have to be true to who you are, and authentic," Kobe said. "And I think every team should have that lightning rod. Because the happy-go-lucky stuff doesn't work. I don't care what anybody says or people's perception of the team. You have to have that inner conflict. You have to have that person that's really driving these things. From the Cavs' perspective, it's hard for me to tell from afar who should be that person. LeBron's not that person. LeBron, he's a ... he brings people together. That's what he does naturally. He's phenomenal at it. But you have to have somebody else who's going to create that tension. Maybe it's Kyrie [Irving]."
LeBron is LeBron, and we can't help who we are. Kobe thinks he still has a chance to change the next James generation though. He saw LeBron's mother, Gloria, in the hallway outside the locker rooms and told her he'd been watching her grandsons' blossoming basketball talents. He had only one critique:
"They pass too much," Kobe told her. "Send them my way, and I'll fix that."