If you went to bed early last night, you missed a close-shave Cavaliers loss to the Lakers. You also missed one of the most entertaining fourth quarters the Cavs have played this season.
LeBron James and Kobe Bryant went head-to-head in crunch time as you'd expect a pair of opposing superstars to do. The trouble for Cleveland is, Bryant has three rings' worth of experience on his side, and that was the difference in the 99-98 Lakers win.
Much has been made of Bryant being a selfish, egotistical player. He is. But having a selfish, egotistical player on your side isn't always a bad thing.
As a matter of ego, Bryant refused to let LeBron beat him last night. LeBron led all scorers with 29 points, Kobe struggled through an off night (for him, anyway) with 27, but Bryant has a Michael Jordan streak in him that LeBron has yet to develop. When the time came to decide a winner, Bryant stuck the dagger in Cleveland's throat.
The late fourth quarter was Bryant at his best. He took over the game, making three straight contested 20-foot jumpers, drawing nothing but net. Bryant made the final jumper, inside of 20 seconds to play, with LeBron and 7'-3" Zydrunas Ilgauskas in his face. It didn't matter who was guarding him.
TNT color announcer Steve Kerr (for my money, one of the best in the business) hit the nail on the head, saying Bryant has "supreme confidence" in his shot with the game on the line. He wants the ball, knows what he's going to do with the ball, and believes he's going to win.
Bryant might need Shaquille O'Neal to be a champion, but he doesn't need Shaq to be a great player.
LeBron had a chance to answer, but showed that he still has a ways to go to reach the clutch ability of Bryant.
With Cleveland trailing 99-97 and inside of 10 seconds to play, LeBron did what he does best: penetrated, drew a foul and got to the free-throw line. But while Bryant was locked in on the hoop like a laser, LeBron drew considerably more iron. He made the first free-throw and missed the second, finishing the night 4-for-9 from the line.
Luckily for the Cavs, Drew Gooden snagged the rebound and called a timeout with just more than four seconds left.
Off the timeout, LeBron took the ball, stutter-stepped, dribbled toward the lane, pulled up for a 15-foot winner at the buzzer and missed wide left.
In the battle of superstars, Bryant took over when it counted. LeBron showed that while his talent is superlative, his experience is not.
LeBron might be the king, but Kobe is still the ring bearer. And he didn't let LeBron forget that Thursday night.