Few people outside of the Lakers organization can appreciate Kobe Bryant as much as San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
After facing each other in nine playoff series over the past 20 years, Popovich got an even closer look at his longtime foe when coaching him in the All-Star Game last week.
During a practice, Popovich guarded Bryant and called foul on some of his tactics.
“He got competitive and he elbowed me so he could get by me, because I’m so quick (that) I was staying in front of him,” Popovich laughed before Friday’s game between the Lakers and Spurs. “He’s a slow, old dog and I’m quick, so the only way he could get around me was to cheat. So he raised that elbow up.”
But that’s not how Bryant remembers it.
“I can handle his quickness just fine,” he said postgame. “I just felt like throwing an elbow at him.”
Despite the playful barbs exchanged, the relationship between the league’s third-highest scorer and eighth-winningest coach is clearly built upon mutual respect.
When the Lakers visited San Antonio on Feb. 6, Bryant caught fire and scored 16 third-quarter points to help the Lakers take a late lead in the following period.
Said Popovich: “With every (shot) I almost giggled and elbowed (assistant coaches) Ettore Messina or Ime Udoka on the side and say, ‘Check it out. He’s still got those moments when he does it.’”
Bryant’s display was so compelling that Popovich had to consciously keep himself locked into the game.
“He was taking the game over and I was having fun watching, kind of like the way you would do with Michael (Jordan) when he would play,” he said. “If you weren’t careful, you’d stop coaching and you’d just start watching because they were so incredible.”
Despite his respect for Bryant, Popovich expressed relief in not having to face Bryant again. He called preparing for the 18-time All-Star “a lot scarier” than vice-versa, saying “there’s really no defense” for his ability to rise up for a jumper over any type of coverage thrown at him.
“The final fear was, even if we did that, he’s gonna rise up and still get that shot off,” Popovich said. “And he did that against a lot of people, including us many times.”