When the smoke cleared on Wednesday night at the Rose Garden, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and Portland Trail Blazers rookie point guard Damian Lillard were responsible for almost 40 percent of the combined points in the Lakers’ 113-106 victory over the Blazers. Bryant lit up the scoreboard with 47 points on 14-of-27 shooting while Lillard dropped a career-high 38 points on 12-of-25 from the field.
The first quarter set the tone for the backcourt shootout between the two surefire bets—Bryant as a Hall of Famer and Lillard as the 2013 Rookie of the Year—barring some profound voting injustice. Both players scored 17 points in a high-scoring 41-33 first quarter, but both had plenty of ammunition left for the final three frames.
Lillard was obviously trying to pick up the point production slack for three missing starters—Wes Matthews, J.J. Hickson and Nicolas Batum. He did just that by keeping the game competitive with timely 3-point bombs that helped fuel the Blazers’ first half rally.
With a hand that runs five championship rings deep, it takes a lot for the 34-year-old alpha Bryant to be impressed, and Lillard certainly didn’t disappoint the veteran.
“He’s spectacular, really fantastic,” Bryant said of Lillard, who coolly shot 5-of-11 from beyond the arc and dished off nine assists. “A lot of players get hot, but he’s got the moves, patience, intelligence, the balance on his jumpers. He’s the real deal.”
The Blazers led by as many as 12 points after two quarters, walking into the locker room at halftime with a 69-61 lead. By then, Bryant was already close to his season average with 28 points and Lillard surpassed his with 25 points.
Then the urgency of preserving their eighth seed in the Western Conference kicked in for Los Angeles, especially Bryant. He scored 11 points in the third quarter, which helped bring the Lakers to a tie and eventually a six-point lead with four minutes remaining until the final quarter.
The Blazers held a scant two-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter, but their offense was already starting to sputter, including Lillard. The rookie dynamo was just 1-for-4 in the third quarter and only 2-for-7 in the fourth. As a team, the Blazers could only muster a 28.6 shooting percentage in the second half compared to the Lakers’ 61.3.
Furthermore, Bryant made some spectacular plays on defense, including three blocks and two steals in the second half. He also added eight rebounds and five assists to his final box score, including a perfect 18-of-18 from the free throw line.
Bryant scored eight of his 47 in the fourth quarter, which included a four-point conversion following a clear path foul by Lillard at the 4:30 mark. That put the Lakers up by six and the Blazers would never get closer than four points.
Portland dropped its ninth straight and Los Angeles put themselves a game ahead of the Utah Jazz for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Lillard, who grew up watching Bryant highlight reels, acknowledged the challenge of facing the future Hall of Famer.
“There was a lot of pride involved. Him being a Hall of Fame shooting guard; me being a rookie who is not going to back down,” said Lillard. “I scored some points and he took the challenge to guard me. Will (Barton) picked up two fouls and I decided I was going to pick (Bryant) up. That’s just what it turned into. It wasn’t a duel between us. It’s just how the game played out.”
Intentional or not, it was a duel for the ages—literally and figuratively for Lillard and Bryant. It was two players crossing paths on the court at two different points in their lives, one’s career is in its infancy of possible greatness and the other’s career is in its twilight of greatness personified.
Ben Hernandez Jr.
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