Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. It's a saying used in war, and to some degree, in basketball. Kobe Bryant lives by this saying, at least when it comes to his relationship with the rival Boston Celtics.
Bryant, a lifelong player-turned-legend for the Los Angeles Lakers, has a long history with the Celtics. Regular season, playoffs, NBA Finals. Kobe has seen it all against the green team. And of course, the C's robbed him of a title in 2008. Despite all of that, Kobe doesn't hate the Celtics.
"It's been great," Bryant said about playing in the Celtics-Lakers rivalry. "It's been a dream come true, you know, growing up and watching it. Here I am, part of it. It's great. The only difference, though, between us and the '80's is that guys over there in the other locker room I know and like. That's the difference between this time around and the '80's."
Bryant has always stepped up his game against the Celtics, a sign of a true Lakers great. Coming into Thursday night's game between the Lakers and Celtics at TD Garden, Bryant had averaged 25.4 points in 24 career regular season contests against Boston. No doubt, his high level of play against Boston has been aided by years of experience.
"We know each other so well," said Bryant. "We know what's coming before it happens."
Bryant, who led all scorers with 27 points, didn't score for the first nine-plus minutes of Thursday's game before making a 23-foot jump shot. Bryant added three free throws and an 11-foot fader in the final two minutes of the opening quarter to bring his point total up to seven.
Again, Bryant was held scoreless for much of the second quarter, not finding his way back onto the scoreboard until the 5:36 mark of the period, when he hit a step back 19-foot jump shot. Kobe added another step back jumper at 4:14 of the quarter to bring his first half scoring total up to 11. Not bad, really. Holding the league's leading scorer to 11 in a half? Not great, but pretty good.
But you can only contain the beast for so long. Eventually, Kobe is going to be Kobe. In the second half, Bryant went off for 16 points, 12 of which came in the third quarter. He looked like the Kobe of old, shaking off defenders and making contested jumpers from all angles. Surprising? Not at all. You just can't escape the inevitable.
Bryant even put his athleticism on display when he executed a ferocious alley-oop jump on a pass from Pau Gasol with 8:04 to play in the third quarter, tying the game at 53-53. Bryant went on to score eight of the Lakers' final 14 points in the quarter. Kobe only scored four more points in the game, two in the fourth and two in overtime, but the damage had already been done.
Of course, Kobe was happy to beat the Celtics, but with the way the Lakers' season had been going (they entered the game against the Celtics with a 14-11 record), Bryant wouldn't classify it as the team's best win. All in all, it was OK.
"Anywhere right now is our best win of the year," he said. "We did OK, we did well. Our execution in the fourth is still very poor towards what we need to accomplish. But, you know, all in all I thought it was a good defensive effort."
Bryant made 11-of-24 field goals, all of which came on two-pointers or free throws. As a team, the Lakers made just 1-of-15 three-point attempts. The key to the win, though, was the advantage in the rebounding category (55-45).
"Extremely. You know, that's what's going to get us W's, taking advantage on the glass and also keeping them off the offensive boards. We only gave up 13 second chance points tonight, which normally it's up in the 25-point, 30 range."
Bryant certainly didn't surprise anyone with his performance, but he sure did wow fans. That's what all have come to expect from Kobe, a Hall of Fame lock and arguably one of the top five players ever to play the game. Bryant recently passed former teammate (and then rival) Shaquille O'Neal to move into fifth place on the NBA's All-Time scoring list.
There isn't an accomplishment of that magnitude that is comparable for any current member of the Celtics, but Kobe's counterpart, Paul Pierce, recently passed Larry Bird to move into second place on the C's all-time scoring list Tuesday.
"I just told him congratulations," Bryant said about Pierce's scoring milestone. "That just means we're both getting very old. He just congratulated me on my record or whatever. It was good to see it."
Love him or hate him (and as Celtics fans, it's understood if you hate him), you have to respect what he has done on the court. Bryant is one of the all-time greats, and without him, the glorious rivalry between the Celtics and Lakers may have died after the '80's. He's a player that Celtics fans love to hate. That's OK, because the feeling's likely mutual for Kobe.