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After slow start, Kobe finishes strong in Boston finale

Bryant's late three-pointer silences Celtics fans one last time

POSTED: Dec 31, 2015 12:43 AM ET

By Ian Thomsen

BY Ian Thomsen

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— So often this year Kobe Bryant has looked like one of those opponents that he used to devour. But something happened on Wednesday to reverse that trend. He came to the arena of his enemy. The booing was familiar and soothing, like a homecoming that only he could appreciate.

"It felt great to get booed," said Bryant after he finished off a shocking 112-104 Lakers victory over their rivals with the biggest shot of his final game in Boston. "As soon as I touched the ball and they booed, I was like 'Ahh.' It felt great."

His preceding 28 games had combined with the initial 46:20 of this night to set up the happiest ending he could have imagined. He was going to generate 15 points (to go with his 11 rebounds) on a sorry 5-for-18 night of shooting. And yet all of it made sense. It was as if all of those difficulties throughout this farewell season could be seen as the investment that enabled him to do what came so naturally to him with 1:40 left in the game.

The Celtics were charging back and the Lakers' lead had dwindled from 14 points down to two when the former Celtic forward Brandon Bass saw Kobe alone atop the three-point arc.

"I was thinking of using as much legs as possible,'' said Bryant, who had been wearing an ice pack around his sore right shoulder before returning for the final 7:23. "That's what I was thinking about. I couldn't really use my shoulder too much, and I was like, 'I've really got to get my legs under this shot. Really jump forward on this shot.'''

After 20 NBA seasons, he was talking himself through the most basic fundamentals. All he wanted was to remember how it used to be, especially with his wife and children watching him courtside.

Bryant had missed 14 shots when he made this one. This is the one that will be remembered.

"I think it's right up there with Philadelphia for me, in terms of most emotional,'' said Bryant, who attended high school in Philadelphia. "This place has really meant a lot for my career. I can't stress that enough. And this is why I wanted my kids here. I wanted my family here. I wanted them to be able to be in the building. I wanted them to be able to see this and experience this.''

Bryant hadn't been sure what he would be hearing from the fans during his final visit to Boston, where he had split the NBA Finals of 2008 and '10. He waved in gratitude before the game when he heard his name being introduced to cheers.

"It's just a surreal feeling,'' he said. "I wish I could do more to show my gratitude to them. And I just tried to say thank you as much as I possibly could. It's a weird feeling, walking across the center court, looking down at that logo, just trying to cherish it as much as possible."

But then another point of view emerged. As soon as the ball found its way to Bryant, the booing started. It followed him like a stubborn defender -- like a ghost of the former Celtic Tony Allen -- everywhere he went.

In other NBA cities Bryant's vindictive, punishing style has been either forgiven or forgotten this season. It's as if the opposing fans have been cheering for someone who never really existed. But that was not happening here. This polarizing and ruthless winner, this villain who thrived on conflict, was being celebrated with a refreshing honesty.

The reaction to Bryant was as complicated as his career has been. The Celtics fans had every right to berate the champion Laker, and for the better part of two quarters their loathing was rewarded as Bryant missed his first eight shots from the field. Then he made his next two, late in the opening half, and for the rest of the night a debate roared between the chants of Kobe-Kobe-Kobe vs. those who wanted the last laugh at his expense. Back and forth they went; these different reactions that he incited.

"I think I've matured quite a bit as a person,'' said Bryant. "I think at the same time I think the maturity, I've lost a lot of the edge because with maturity comes a more docile approach to the game. Whereas back in the day there's no compromise, there is no understanding. As you get older you start to get more perspective. It's a great thing as a person, but as a player not so much."

The steam had been taken out of his career. The main goal was always to win championships, and that was no longer available. All there was left for him was a night like this, a reward both unexpected and welcome.

His team's best player was second-year guard Jordan Clarkson, a second-round pick from last year. He emerged as the Lakers' go-to scorer with 25 points on 15 shots, while Julius Randle (15 points and 12 rebounds) dominated the Celtics physically and rookie D'Angelo Russell added 16 points. They joined with the remarkably efficient Lou Williams (19 points on nine shots) to carry the Lakers in spite of Bryant's shooting struggles.

The Lakers, owners of a four-game losing streak and the NBA's second-worst record, were refusing to wane. The two factions of the audience were growing ever louder. Winning this game was becoming more important to everybody, and the conflicting spirit seemed to infuse Kobe. He led the Lakers with nine points in the fourth quarter while making two of his three 3-pointers.

When the last one went down, when his fundamentals took hold and he finished what he had started so long ago, the response reminded everyone here, briefly and yet undeniably, of an NBA Finals game.

"I just can't believe this is the last time I'm going to be here, you know?'' said Bryant. "I can't believe -- it seems like yesterday we were playing the Finals here. This is crazy."

Crazy? It was, in the end, consistent.

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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