By Dave McMenamin, NBA.com
Posted Jan 20 2009 7:11AM
LOS ANGELES -- The mano-a-mano battle between MVP candidates Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was the only thing the media wanted to talk about before the Lakers played the Cavaliers on Monday at STAPLES Center, despite repeated attempts by members from both sides to stress the team aspect.
"Our big lineup was bigger than their big lineup and our small lineup was quicker than their small lineup," Lamar Odom said, summing up how the Lakers were able to beat the Cavs in rebounds, assists, steals, points in the paint and fastbreak points.
Before the game, James said that in a marquee matchup like this one, "LeBron vs. Kobe never enters my mind." Unlike his errant jump shots -- he shot just 9-for-25 -- his take on the pairing was dead on.
The game was just as much Sasha vs. Sasha in the first half when Vujacic and Pavlovic combined for 19 points to James' and Bryant's 15.
In the end, Bryant's 22 points and 12 assists were no more valuable than Pau Gasol's 22 points on 11-for-13 shooting and 12 rebounds. James' 23 points and nine rebounds wouldn't have helped cut an 18-point deficit to a seven-point game with 3:32 to go if it wasn't for Anderson Varejao's double-double and three other Cleveland players topping double-digit scoring.
"It's always a team game," James said. "If it was LeBron vs. Kobe and we were playing tennis or golf [that's one thing], this is a team sport and you cannot win in this game without playing team basketball."
And so it was: The league's top offense wearing purple and gold against the stingiest defense in wine and blue; the best record in the West against the best team in the East; the last two groups that Boston eliminated on its championship quest a year ago facing head-to-head.
Cleveland marched into L.A. with a 12-1 record against the West wanting to add an L to the Lakers' 10-5 mark against the East. Instead, it took one on the chin.
It was a tussle, but that's not to say that Bryant and James didn't provide their fair share of highlights. Bryant, despite Lakers head coach Phil Jackson's preference to stick Trevor Ariza on James, requested to man-up against LeBron from the opening tip.
"Kobe did a great job of denying him and making him catch the ball as further out as possible and then we just kind of loaded up the side," Odom said. "We're quick enough to when he makes the pass to kind of recover and we did that tonight. We played hard."
The hard play resulted in Bryant adding to his list of injuries. First it was the torn ligament in his right pinky against Jason Kidd last season, then the four stitches above his right eye courtesy of Dwyane Wade last week. And on Monday, the Mamba managed to dislocate his right ring finger trying to wrap up James on defense in the first quarter.
"I was scared; I thought I was done to be honest with you," Bryant said about his finger, which was X-rayed after the game. "It felt like I had two fingers on one, it was disgusting."
Bryant won for just the fourth time in his 10 career meetings against James, snapping the Cavs' five-game win streak against L.A. James still averages more points, more rebounds and shoots a higher percentage than Bryant in those 10 meetings, but Bryant was best this time around.
First, on defense, when LeBron powered down the lane for what was sure to be a "no regard for human life" moment in the first quarter, Bryant was there, poking the ball out of James' hands and off his legs out of bounds, giving L.A. possession.
Later, on offense, when the capacity crowd got a bit of the back-and-forth it paid to see at the start of the fourth quarter, Bryant and James traded long jumpers. Then Bryant took the stage all his own, first hitting an impossible arching baseline fadeaway as the shot clock expired and then outdoing himself with a one-handed floater while hurtling out of bounds that seemed to clear the backboard before settling in the net as the referee whistled James for the foul.
James had his requisite jaw-dropping moments, from a turnaround jumper at the foul line that caused a veteran reporter to blurt out, "You cannot hit that ... You cannot hit that!" to a lefty tomahawk on Odom's head, to a nifty scoop shot reminiscent of the game-winner he had against the Pistons in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. But Kobe and the Lakers stole the show.
"I really enjoy it," Bryant said. "I enjoy the preparations, I enjoy the challenges, I enjoy him hitting tough shots and then me coming back and trying to stop him from doing it again. It's a blast."
The thing everybody forgets is that there is a seven-year gap of NBA experience between these two "peers." Bryant had a slam dunk title, three rings, five All-Star appearances and 10,658 career points on his resume before James even played a preseason game.
James even said it before the game: "I love the competitive nature that Kobe has and I've looked up to him for a long time, especially being in grade school and high school and seeing him come straight out of high school. I look up to him ..."
They do have commonalities, from their prep-to-pros paths to the league, to their crossover appeal into pop culture thanks to endless endorsement deals, to their stint as Olympic gold-medal teammates, to the fact that their last names sound more like first names than their first names do. But to pit them against each other tale-of-the-tape style would be like comparing the comedic abilities of Chris Rock with Jerry Seinfeld.
(Which Bryant actually did, claiming his wit is the Seinfeld variety while James takes the Rock approach to humor.)
They both have their talents, but you can't really go tit-for-tat with a 30-year-old, 6-foot-6, 205-pound shooting guard and a 24-year-old, 6-foot-8, 250-pound small forward.
What you can do is compare the 32-8 Lakers and the 31-8 Cavaliers. Two teams measuring up in mid-January to see if a rematch will fit in June. It's a very real possibility because these are two teams with ensemble casts as good as their leading men.
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