LOS ANGELES (AP) – Kobe Bryant felt LeBron James coming, seeking one of his chase-down blocks that would have further energized an East team that had momentum.
So Bryant jumped a little bit quicker and slammed it down over his pursuer – “I kind of snuck it by him,” Bryant said – then threw in a 3-pointer on the next possession for good measure to put the West back in control.
Nothing was going to stop Bryant from a victory in this All-Star game, not on his home floor. Shining brightest again among the stars, Bryant brought Showtime back to the All-Star game, scoring 37 points and tying a record with his fourth MVP award in the Western Conference’s 148-143 victory over the East on Sunday night.
“I feel like we have a sense of responsibility and we are voted in for what we do during the season, which is play hard,” Bryant said. “And we come here, that’s what the fans want to see. They want to see us go at it and see us compete and that’s what I try to do and that’s what I try to tell my teammates to do.”
Returning to the game he dominates after a one-year absence, Bryant added 14 rebounds in a spectacular performance in front of the usual celebrity-filled crowd that turns out to see his Lakers at Staples Center.
“It was like playing in a playground. It was like a pickup game almost,” Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant said. “Just to watch it, I see it on TV all the time, I play against him all the time. But to be on his team and see the things that he was doing out there is just amazing.”
Durant chipped in 34 points, scoring five straight after the East cut a 17-point deficit after three quarters to two points with 2:34 to play. The NBA scoring leader added the clinching free throws after the East got back within three in the final seconds.
James powered the East rally, finishing with 29 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists to join Michael Jordan as the only players with a triple-double in the All-Star game. Amare Stoudemire also scored 29, but Miami’s Dwyane Wade, the MVP of the East’s win last year, had to leave with an ankle injury after scoring 14.
Plenty of Hollywood giants were sitting courtside, but Bryant’s popularity here can rival most of them. This week, he became the first athlete to have his handprints and footprints put in concrete outside Hollywood’s famed Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
Bryant, who missed last year’s game in Dallas with an ankle injury, told fans to “enjoy the show” before the tip, and as always he delivered a good one.
Always more about focus than fun, Bryant had 21 points by the time Rihanna came out for her halftime performance, putting him halfway to Wilt Chamberlain’s record from 1962, the year of his 100-point game.
“You could tell he started out from the start, he wanted to get the MVP,” Stoudemire said. “He was not passing the ball, at all. But that’s Kobe.”
And when the East made it close in the third quarter, Bryant threw down his dunk over the chasing James, then nailed a 3-pointer to make it 90-79.
“He was unbelievable tonight,” James said. “You definitely saw his motor was going tonight.”
Carmelo Anthony scored eight points in his possible goodbye to the West team. The weekend was dominated by talk of a potential trade to New York or New Jersey, and the Denver Nuggets forward appeared alternately entertained and annoyed by the constant questions. “At times, it can be tough, but it’s fun at the same time,” he said while walking on the magenta carpet before the game. “During this weekend I’m still having fun.”
While hearing some of the usual “MVP! MVP! chants he’s usually serenaded with at Staples Center, Bryant tied Bob Pettit’s record for All-Star game honors. He was scoreless for the final 6:48, but Lakers teammate Pau Gasol had a big basket to help the West hold on against an East team featuring a combined seven players from Boston and Miami, considered two of the biggest threats to end the Lakers’ two-year championship reign.
The exhibition game had a bit of a finals feel with the presence of a record-tying four players from the rival Celtics.
Paul Pierce – who grew up in nearby Inglewood – and Kevin Garnett received the heaviest boos during the starting lineups. Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo were also here from the group that lost Game 7 on this floor last June and would love another chance to come take the title back.
East coach Doc Rivers sent his four players out together midway through the first quarter to loud boos that usually provide the soundtrack of June in Los Angeles. They quickly turned to cheers when Allen put up an airball on his first shot attempt.
Bryant denied gaining extra motivation from seeing the two rivals, both of whom already won at Staples Center this season. But he was clearly into the game from the start, driving for a couple of strong dunks or knocking down jumpers when defenders gave him room.
The crowd of entertainers included Beyonce and Jay-Z, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Jack Nicholson, Stevie Wonder, John Legend and Justin Bieber – who was called Justin “Berber” by the public address announcer while mentioning the teen star’s MVP performance in the celebrity game on Friday.
Los Angeles’ newest star, rookie Blake Griffin of the Clippers, caught an alley-oop pass from Deron Williams late in the first quarter for one of his powerful dunks – though not quite the degree of difficulty as his slam while leaping over the hood of a car Saturday to win the dunk contest.
The game was a welcome diversion from the Anthony talk and the troubling labor situation that threatens the league. Next year’s game is scheduled for Orlando, but nobody can be sure it will be played. A work stoppage is possible. And it was a welcome break for Lakers fans, whose team stumbled into the break with three losses in a row. They’ll be all right if Bryant is as sharp in the spring as he was Sunday.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)