I'd never been to a NBA game. Surprising even to me since the opportunity was always there, but I guess LeBron leaving for 4 years probably put a damper on a lot of people's intentions. Back in November, I got an email about a potential trip to Cleveland to watch the Lakers game on February 10th. You didn't have to remind me this would pretty much be my only chance ever to see Kobe Bryant in a Lakers uniform. I was "all in" as the kids say nowadays. Stupid kids.
My waning hope as I fell asleep Tuesday night was that there wouldn't be some weather forced cancellation. My first sound as I awoke the next day was the soothing buzz of an incoming text and then instant dread. When I finally woke up, woke up I checked my phone and sure enough, it was about the game. The news was palatable though, informing me that one of our group of four had to bow out last minute. After multiple nearly successful attempts to find someone to take the ticket, the three of us left downtown Columbus, 3:30pm that afternoon. Right around the time we were slowly traversing an impromptu blizzard in Ashland, we found someone who'd take the fourth ticket. Everything was coming up Milhouse.
We parked near the arena ($25) around 6pm, grabbed some paninis at Panini's, and headed to our seats. We'd paid $55 a pop for our tickets a week before Kobe announced his retirement plan. Now, tickets in our section were going for about $175 so we were happy. We were also literally 3 rows from the very top. But Quicken Loans Arena or the Gund if you're like me and not a shill, has a giant scoreboard. It's the largest HD scoreboard of any arena in the country. You could actually feel the flames on your forehead when they burst out in thunderous celebration. As far as any Kobe tribute, there was a nice video highlighting his past dominance and a heartfelt standing ovation but no jewel encrusted black mamba or honorary plaque in Comic Sans. The real joy would be to see two of the greatest players of all time go at it for the last time in Ohio.
As soon as the game started, I became pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to follow the dance on the court. Kobe and LeBron started off guarding each other. Give the people what they want. Kobe's 15 footer answered a Kyrie jumper early in the game. But the Cavs went on a 16-4 run after that (despite Kevin Love missing 3 straight shots from 3 point land) mainly because the Lakers don't play defense. Not sure if that was on orders from their Tank Commander, Byron Scott, or not. Kobe took his difficult and sometimes ill-advised shots as has been his MO pretty much his whole career. He didn't hit again until making a trey with three minutes left in the first. He was replaced on the next break by Metta World Peace, the Artest formerly known as Ron. Cavs led after one, 35-25.
The 2nd quarter saw D'Angelo Russell shine. In a two minute span, the rookie from Ohio State drained three straight pretty 3-pointers to cut the Cavs lead to 6. It begged the question, why won't they let him play more? Russell did finish with 15 points on 5-11 shooting in 28 minutes. Most impressive may have been his +11 plus/minus. The Lakers struggled after that and the Cavs took advantage, coasting to a 64-47 halftime time lead on the strength of 54% shooting from the field versus the Lakers dismal 36%. Kevin Love was not impressive the whole half and did not come back into the game after suffering an apparent injury to the shoulder (yes that shoulder) late in the period. The team (and Love) says it is not serious. What is serious is that KLove went 2-9 with 8 points and 6 rebounds in 20 minutes. That's not even beating the Rockets.
The 3rd quarter was memorable because Anderson Varejao played some quality minutes and did not look too bad. It's also always nice to see World Peace in action. Most memorable to D'Angelo Russell (in a very bad way) was the fastball he took from LeBron in the, ahem, gonads. Poor guy was laid out on the court in pain for a good five minutes. The Cavs led coming into the 4th, 93-74. Not much was expected the rest of the game but in the latter half of the 4th, amid "Kobe" chants from the considerable number of Lakers fans in attendance, the Lakers sprang to life. A 4 point play from Bryant cut the Cavs lead down to 9 and a couple minutes later, Kobe got fouled on a 3 point attempt, sinking the trifecta of free throws. L.A. was down 8 with 3 minutes plus left but that would be as close as they'd get.
In an overall fantastic experience for me, Cleveland won the game 120-111 behind 35 points, on 15-24 shooting, and 7 assists from Kyrie Irving who found little resistance. LeBron James played a great game with 29 points (on 12-22 shooting), 11 assists, and 7 rebounds in 37 minutes. Kobe finished with 17 points (5-16 shooting) and 6 rebounds in 33 minutes. Not what he once was, but deserving of respect nonetheless. There will still be time for a proper Kobe send-off on these pages but there won't be many more wins for this Los Angeles squad. Of course, this could all be part of the plan to get in position to draft Ben Simmons in June, instantly skyrocketing the future of this proud franchise, reduced to a miserable rubble these past few years.
The Cavs were there, during LeBron's "college years" but they're in a whole new stratosphere now. This win was expected and perhaps too close against the team with the 2nd worst record in the NBA. From now on, every success and mishap for the Cavs will be scrutinized against the backdrop of the ferocious West where the Warriors and Spurs are both making runs at the greatest season ever. Should they have fired the coach, was Kevin Love the right choice, is LeBron done, does J.R. Smith have Periscope? Much has been made of LeBron's leadership or lack thereof. This season will be strong testimony to who he really is.