DENVER – In two different locker rooms, separated by about 50 yards and five championships, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony assessed the night’s developments in the NBA as we now know it.
The end of the Lakers’ 8-0 start. A significant victory by the Nuggets, who bounced back from consecutive losses that included an embarrassing meltdown in Indiana. The latest, ever-so-subtle shift in the Melodrama, with Anthony saying after the Nuggets’ 118-112 victory over the two-time defending champs, “I’m content with my situation.”
Across the continent, the Miami Heat lost again to the Celtics and fell to 5-4 – while the Cavaliers, LeBron James’ former team, are 4-4.
“Oh, ____,” Bryant said with a smile after being informed of the delicious irony. “That’ll make for a good story in Cleveland in November. But come April, I don’t think that’ll be much of a story.”
Somehow all the stories were intertwined Thursday night at the Pepsi Center. The best team in the league took one on the chin, giving up a 33-point fourth quarter to the small-ball Nuggets, who can do nothing more than view Anthony’s fragile future as a day-to-day proposition. The team the Lakers beat in the Finals, Boston, made mince meat of the mighty Heat – a 112-107 victory that, for now, has changed everyone’s perspective about how good this free-agent fabrication will be.
It is knee-jerk reaction time, because it is November in the NBA. Hours earlier, Bryant was sitting in a courtside seat at the Pepsi Center after shootaround, deflecting questions about whether the Lakers could win 70 games. Two weeks ago, everyone wanted to know if the Heat could win 73, eclipsing the NBA record established by Phil Jackson’s 1995-96 Bulls.
“You guys never stop that stuff,” Bryant said after the game, his knees wrapped in ice and a black, boxer-style robe draped over his shoulders. When asked if there’s too much dissection of the early returns, Bryant stood up and said, “What else are you guys going to do? Talk about Miami all the time?”
If nothing else, Thursday night, Nov. 11, was a turning point in this season of anticipation and unprecedented interest. It was the night when doubts about the Heat were driven home, and when the world exhaled with the knowledge that, no, the Lakers will not go undefeated. It seemed fitting that it all came together on a night when the old-guard Celtics humbled the new-look Heat – and when the young star of the league whom Bryant relates with the best showed why he belongs in the conversation about the top of the pecking order in pro basketball.
“We’re both brutally honest,” Bryant said. “I think that’s the thing. We don’t pull punches. We don’t sugarcoat how we feel. That’s what attracted me to him, and I think vice versa. We don’t pull punches. We hang out all the time and we can be harsh with one another, and it’s fun.
“He and I are like that all the time, and I’m like that with everybody,” Bryant said. “We rip each other pretty good back and forth. Obviously, I pull a little bit more weight because I’ve won a little bit more than him so I can talk a little bit more. We really just have a great relationship. We hit it off in Beijing and we’ve been tight ever since.”
After Anthony put up 32 points on 14-for-25 shooting from the field with 13 rebounds, Bryant hugged him and told him something.
“Just, ‘Good win,’” Melo said. “‘Keep it up.’”
Anthony is in the same position Bryant was in three years ago, wanting to find greener pastures. Bryant found them at home, in L.A., because the Lakers got lucky and got him Pau Gasol. They’ve been to the Finals three times and won two titles since then.
Melo said he isn’t looking ahead too far ahead, that he can’t see what December, February, or June have in store.
"I see the Phoenix Suns Monday night,” he said. “That’s what I see. … I’m content with my situation right now.”
It turns out there is an NBA beyond South Beach, and on Thursday night, Bryant and Melo were basking in it. Bryant, chasing his sixth title to equal the great Michael Jordan, was unusually jovial after a loss. Anthony, Bryant’s partner in brutal honesty, said he was “proud of my team” for the way it bounced back. And he promised to keep answering all the questions that result from his decision to leave his options open by refusing to sign a three-year, $65 million extension – a decision that has given the Nuggets no choice but to continue exploring what they can get for him in a trade. Because if Anthony doesn’t sign that extension by the February trade deadline, it will no longer a question of whether they trade Anthony, but what they get for him.
“I’m looking forward to just playing basketball, man,” Anthony said. “I’m not concerned about anything else right now. The only thing on my mind right now is winning, playing games, getting my guys back healthy and getting them back out there on the court. Everything else is irrelevant to me right now.
Down the hall, Bryant had just finished regaling his postgame audience with stories of why he respects Anthony so much – why, of all the stars on the 2008 Olympic team, he gravitated toward Anthony. For one thing, the elbows Bryant always makes a point of throwing at the new guys didn’t cause Anthony to recoil when he came into the league.
“He welcomed it,” Bryant said. “He just kept coming and coming and coming, so I respected that about him.”
Bryant respects his honesty, too, and can relate because he was once sitting in the same seat. The only advice Bryant said he’s given his friend is to make sure he’s sure about what he wants.
“Like I tell him, he’s got some catching up to do,” Bryant said. “It’s a long, rocky mountain to climb.”