The man most everyone packed Verizon Center to watch one last time Wednesday night ambled into the visitors’ locker room at 5:36 p.m., a flock of media members parting the hallway for his entrance. Ninety minutes later, Kobe Bryant was introduced, and the sellout crowd, the majority clad in purple and gold thousands of miles east of Los Angeles, roared for the Lakers icon.
The Washington Wizards often face a home-court disadvantage when they host a marquee opponent like the Lakers. But the Kobe Bryant Farewell Tour, launched Sunday when Bryant announced his intention to retire at the end of the season, propelled the atmosphere to another level.
And Bryant, ever the showman, treated his rabid following with a vintage spectacle. Drawing cheers whenever he touched the ball and deafening frenzies whenever he made a shot, Bryant scored a season-high 31 points on 10-for-24 shooting in 36 minutes to lead Los Angeles to a 108-104 victory.
Like he did so often over his first 19 seasons, the 37-year-old saved his best for the end, netting 12 points in the fourth quarter to close out the Wizards. His step-back jumper over Bradley Beal with 30.8 seconds remaining gave the Lakers (3-15) a 103-101 lead, and they didn’t trail again as they snapped a seven-game losing streak.
“He decided to be young Kobe tonight,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “Hats off to him.”
[Brewer: Kobe’s complicated Farewell Tour makes latest awkward stop]
The result was confounding for the Wizards (7-9), who had defeated the Cavaliers in Cleveland the night before. They were coming off a 12-point victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Eastern Conference’s best team, on Tuesday night, while the Lakers had lost to the Philadelphia 76ers, the East’s worst team.
“At the end of the day, we had a letdown,” Wizards guard Garrett Temple said.
Turnovers doomed Washington like they have much of the season. The Wizards committed 23, and the Lakers scored 33 points off the giveaways. John Wall finished with a game-high 34 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds but also had five turnovers. Marcin Gortat had 18 points and 10 rebounds, while Beal scored 11 points on 4-for-12 shooting. Julius Randle tallied 15 points and 19 rebounds for the Lakers.
“When you spot a team 33 points off your turnovers, I don’t know how you expect [to win],” Wittman said. “We are lucky it was a four-point game with that.”
The third all-time leading scorer in NBA history, Bryant entered the evening as the least efficient scorer in the league by a hefty margin. He was shooting 30.1 percent from the field and 20.8 percent from three-point range. In Tuesday’s loss to the previously winless 76ers, he scored 20 points on 7-for-26 shooting, including 4 for 17 from three-point range, in 32 minutes. How he missed was often uglier than the ghastly numbers.
With the Lakers playing their fourth game in five nights, Bryant’s status Wednesday was not 100 percent certain. But he started, and Los Angeles dominated much of the first half, building a 19-point lead behind a throwback performance from Bryant.
Bryant scored 18 points in the first two quarters. He poured in trademark midrange fadeaways and pull-up jumpers over helpless Wizards defenders — the same shots that appeared to have deserted him this through much of the season.
“He did not look like an old guy,” Gortat said.
Bryant fueled a 13-0 Lakers spurt in the first quarter, a stretch that ended with a tribute on the video board during a stoppage in play. “Thank you for 20 amazing years!” the graphic read, with a photo of Bryant. He waved to the crowd and bowed as he walked back onto the court. Fans responded with a standing ovation and chants of “Kobe!” He then made a technical foul free throw to complete the run.
The Lakers’ lead widened to 19 later in the second quarter before the Wizards responded with a 17-4 run to trim the deficit to six points at the half. Washington reclaimed the lead at the start of the fourth quarter with a 7-0 spurt that launched a back-and-forth final period and a couple classic Bryant moments.
With 5 minutes 56 seconds remaining, Bryant drained an open three-pointer to break an 87-87 tie and ignite the loudest crowd explosion of the night. A couple minutes later, he drained a fadeaway jumper over Beal — who grew up in St. Louis idolizing Bryant — to put the Lakers back ahead 92-91.
“It was like a movie, man,” Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson said.
[Washington’s Wizards and Capitals leap into a virtual world]
Wall kept responding for the Wizards. The point guard scored 15 points in the final period, and his two free throws with 1:08 remaining gave Washington a 99-98 edge. But Bryant immediately answered with the final of his four three-pointers, then added his step-back jumper over Beal, and the Lakers made their free throws down the stretch to put the game away.
When the final buzzer sounded, a few Wizards players walked over to Bryant to pay their respects. Bryant then waved to the crowd as he walked off the Verizon Center hardwood for the final time, eliciting one final roar for one final vintage performance.
“I just go out there and worked,” Bryant said. “I don’t necessarily need it from a confidence perspective. But more from a figuring out how to manage my body perspective. Now I have to really look and see, ‘What did I do?’ over the last couple days that might have been a little different preparing my body. My body feels so strong right now.”