Jae Crowder, the Boston Celtics wing, had the honor of guarding Kobe Bryant in the departing legend’s final match-up against the Los Angeles Lakers’ oldest foes. On Sunday, Bryant turned back the clock and scored a game-high 34 points and helped rally his team from a 17-point first-half deficit before Boston emerged with a 107-100 victory.
Crowder, a candidate to win the Most Improved Player this season, finished with 22 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 5 steals as the young Celtics squad won the 45th game of their breakout season. After the game, Jae Crowder asked Bryant, “Are you sure you’re gonna retire this year?”
It’s very difficult to counter Bryant’s decision, even for Laker fans. Bryant is shooting a career-low percentage from the field in his final season, and his all-round stats have drastically waned. Despite all that, Crowder’s question was asked more out of respect, shoring up an all-time great.
‘Looked 10 years younger…’
Bryant has battled through Achilles and shoulder injuries for the past 3 seasons. But on any given night, the Black Mamba can still go toe-to-toe with the best in the business. For Celtics coach Brad Stevens, it was a surreal moment to coach his team against Bryant for the final time.
“Two things crossed our (coaching) staff’s mind; we just talked about it: No. 1 is, as much as we enjoy watching on TV, I’m glad that we never (have to play against Bryant) again. No. 2 is, I can’t imagine what it was like 10 years ago. Because he looked like he was 29 out there and I know what I feel like at 39. He’s an amazing athlete, an amazing player. Hats off to him,” said Stevens, the leading candidate to win Coach of the Year.
Once Bryant retires, young Celtics and Lakers players will resume the most important rivalry in sports. But do they really understand its significance?
“The guys that don’t get (the rivalry), I don’t understand it. If you’re a basketball player, you want to know everything about the game, the history of the game. I wonder how many of them have seen (Larry) Bird play or Magic play, for that matter. They weren’t even born, like some of them were barely born when I started playing,” Bryant, who will play his final game against Utah Jazz on April 13, said after Sunday’s game.
Coming back full circle…
D’Angelo Russell was born in 1996 – a time when both Lakers and Celtics were rebuilding their squads and moving on from legends. Funny enough, we’re at a similar juncture 20 years later. “There was a little trash talking going on between the young guys over there, and hearing that exchange got me juiced up a little bit, too. It was fun,” Bryant revealed after the game.
The Boston Globe paid a fitting tribute to Bryant in this Monday op-ed: “Bryant, one of the faces of the post-Michael Jordan NBA, was once a bright-eyed, skilled, and rather arrogant 18-year-old; he is now hobbling away at 37. His exit conjures myriad emotions, but the most profound should be appreciation for his contributions to the game and the Lakers-Celtics rivalry.”
Jae Crowder just made a lot of Laker fans happy. That’s not something Celtics players and fans are accustomed to.