DENVER — The last time he had stepped on a basketball court, Kobe Bryant traveled back in time by throwing down a one-handed dunk and sending teammates and fans alike in a frenzy. Bryant returned five days later, and did nearly the same thing.
But the magic Bryant performed did not hinge on one play. It hinged on basically everything. The Lakers secured a 111-107 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday at Pepsi Center by posting a complete game, tying a season-high 31 points on 10-of-22 shooting and five assists in 32 minutes. After Denver (11-17) reserve Will Barton posted 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting in the first half, Bryant defended him in the second half and limited him to one field goal.
“I’ve been watching him doing it since I was a little kid,” Lakers forward Julius Randle shrugged. “It’s nothing new.”
But it actually is new.
Bryant is 37 years old. He has come off this season fighting rust stemmed from playing a combined 41 games the last two years with overlapping injuries to his left Achilles tendon, left knee and right shoulder. He has fought the pain stemmed from Father Time’s unforgiving punch. But after missing Saturday’s game in Oklahoma City nursing a sore right shoulder, Bryant stepped on the floor here playing as if nothing ever happened to him.
“I can’t explain it. I don’t even try,” Lakers coach Byron Scott. “Seriously. What he did on both ends of the floor was amazing.”
Scott had admitted after morning shootaround and prior to tipoff that he had no idea what to expect from Bryant. Scott knew Bryant would compete. Scott knew Bryant would try to carry the team. But Scott had no idea how much pain Bryant would feel from his shoulder. Scott had no idea how much rustiness Bryant would show after his five-day absence.
But Bryant addressed those question marks only 70 seconds into the game. Lakers rookie forward Larry Nance Jr. passed the ball to Bryant before setting a screen for him along the perimeter. Bryant then drove to the free throw line and sank a 13-foot jumper.
“I was just waiting to see the first shot,” Scott said. “If it was short, I thought that was an indication that it was sore. But when he knocked that down, he didn’t grimace or anything like that. He kept playing.”
And Bryant kept scoring.
He converted on a four-point play. Bryant grabbed a rebound and made a baseline jumper from behind the basket. He two other jumpers. He finished with 13 first-half points on 4 of 10 shooting after playing the entire first quarter and sitting the entire second quarter.
“I wanted to try to get to the free throw line and below,” Bryant said. “Just to see where it’s at and rely on my legs more from that distance at least from the start to get my shoulder loose a little bit and try to get the touch better.”
All of which left Nuggets coach Mike Malone wondering.
“If you see his first couple shots go in, all of a sudden you worry about the old Kobe,” Malone said. “But can he sustain it like he used to for four quarters? I think that’s probably a bigger challenge.”
But it’s a challenge Bryant met. So much that Bryant accepted Scott’s invitation to guard Barton after he posted All-Star numbers in the first half.
“We were just kind of matching up,” Bryant joked, “and nobody was on him so I took him.” Bryant then added with a smirk, “I can still play a little bit.”
Yes, he can. He held Barton to a single field goal, while Bryant kept producing offensively. Bryant took pride in excelling in both areas.
“It’s a great test for me tonight to be able to see if I could still play both ends of the floor,” Bryant said. “I felt like I could do one. I didn’t know if I could do both. It felt good to be able to do that.”
That happened because of one important variable.
“My legs feel fine. I feel like me,” Bryant said. “I could control the game. I felt like I could read everything and get to the spots I want to get to. It’s not as quickly I want to get to them. But I can get there.”
Bryant got there when the Lakers needed him the most.
Bryant set a pick for Jordan Clarkson that forced a switch with Nuggets guard Jameer Nelson defending Bryant. Bryant then posted up on Nelson. After getting into triple-threat position, Bryant turned his back and then cut left. He then sank a step-back jumper that gave the Lakers a 94-91 lead with 6:13 left.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Nance Jr. said. “I’ve been watching it my entire life. To see it in person is one thing. But to see him go to that mode where this game is over and it’s on my back. It’s really cool to see.”
But Bryant wasn’t finished.
After missing a 3-pointer, Clarkson grabbed the rebound. He looked to look for his own shot. But Bryant called for the ball at the top of the key. Clarkson grudgingly obliged. Then, Bryant sized up Denver guard Gary Harris. Bryant drove to his left and marched into the paint. After meeting help defense, Bryant then picked up his dribble. As Harris caught up, Bryant rotated his feet before pulling up for a jumper that gave the Lakers’ a 107-100 lead with 32 seconds left.
“He was making shots and making plays,” Clarkson said. “We kept going to him. He did what he did. He’s the Mamba.”
But Bryant was not always the Mamba earlier in the season.
He had averaged 16.2 points while averaging 30.6 percent from the field in the Lakers’ first 22 games. But in the last seven games, Bryant has averaged 20.57 points on 44 percent shooting. Bryant’s latest performance marked his fifth game in the last seven appearances he scored at least 20 points.
“I got so much confidence in him. I just knew it was a matter of time before he would start getting his legs and timing and rust would get knocked off,” Scott said. “I know he would play the way I know he’s capable of playing.”
Outside of his confident exterior, Bryant harbored internal doubt.
“The hardest thing is to stay with it,” Bryant said. “There have been games where I thought, What the hell?’ I knew how hard I worked. I knew how many shots I took. There was nothing I could do. I had to stay with it and trust that eventually it’ll catch up. It was a little discouraging because I really worked hard. To start the season that way, I felt like there was nothing. I had to stay with it.”
But with Bryant’s recent absence, concerns emerged again on both his health and rustiness. But instead of spending his time shooting to maintain his rhythm, Bryant reported spending the weekend only resting. His only activity entailed watching the new Star Wars movie, which he described as “awesome.”
Bryant then offered some of his own special effects before a supportive crowd that once greeted him with boos.
“I’m beyond thankful man, seriously,” Bryant said. “To be able to play 20 years, you have to have a lot of luck to pull that off. Then to have the appreciation from the fans like that, my appreciation for them is so much greater.”
But that only led some to wonder if he would reconsider his plans to retire after the 2015-16 season.
“Zero,” Bryant said. “Not even an inkling.”
Still, Bryant sounded satisfied with a job well done But he was then asked if he can play on Wednesday against Oklahoma City at Staples Center.
“Not right now,” Bryant said, jokingly. “But I will be tomorrow.”
Bryant then walked down the hallway of Pepsi Center, inspired that he compiled a rare victory both for the Lakers and against Father Time himself.