NEW YORK -- There we went again, along for the kind of basketball ride that used to happen all the time in this place.
Kobe Bryant and LeBron James know how to put on a show for the people. They know how to make time stand still, when the organ is humming and the fans are standing and chanting, "Dee-fense!" and another shot is arcing through the stillness toward the basket.
Bryant put his name on the marquee Monday night with a Madison Square Garden-record 61 points. Two nights later, despite endless protests that he doesn't do such things, LeBron came in to reclaim it.
There is no denying the breadth of his talents or selflessness as a basketball player. But if you ever believed LeBron for a minute when he said before the game, "I never go into a game saying, 'Well, I'm gonna try to put up this amount of numbers,'" then you should've seen him soaring desperately for that final rebound with two seconds left -- the one that got him the first 50-point triple-double in the NBA since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975, nine years before Gloria James gave birth to LeBron.
At that point, with everything decided but the shape of the numbers in the box score, it was OK for LeBron to dive for a rebound as though he were trying to sidestep a runaway taxi on Seventh Avenue. For the sake of a statistic that aptly defines the completeness of his talent, LeBron sprinted toward the rim, chasing Chris Duhon's errant 3-pointer as though it were the last drop of Gatorade on Earth.
His legs cramping badly from a 44-minute night served up by coach Mike Brown, James corralled the ball with 1.9 seconds left and fell out of bounds into a courtside photographer, getting a lens to the back of his head for his trouble.
"It was worth it," LeBron said, "because we won the basketball game."
They won 107-102, and James got the 50-point triple-double that eluded him by two rebounds last March. We can debate which individual performance was better -- Kobe's 61, no rebounds, and three assists in 37 minutes or LeBron's 52 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds in 44 minutes -- 10 steals shy of the quadruple-double Kobe predicted.
In its 40 years of existence, nobody has scored more points in a game at the present Garden than Kobe's 61. Only two visiting players have scored 50 points twice here -- Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
"Like Kobe said, this is the last building that's still alive," LeBron said. "It's just a different feeling when you come into this building. You feel like, honestly, you're on stage and playing the game of basketball more than you're on the court, because of the fans and how the lighting is in here. And you think about the history of the game, so many great performances. ... There's no way for me to ever think that this is just another road game."
And then, as though he were trying to go quote-for-quote with Kobe, too, LeBron said, "It's an honor that you're in the same breath as Kareem and Mike, two of the baddest guys ... to ever play this game, to ever walk on the face of the Earth and carry a basketball."
|LeBron James puts all his skills -- and perhaps a competitive streak, too -- on display at Madison Square Garden. (AP)|
"It's going to be a good show," LeBron said.
If I knew how many points Kobe and LeBron would score Sunday, I'd be going to Las Vegas instead of Cleveland. But I do know this: The two most talented players this side of Jordan approach their craft a little differently.
Kobe had 18 in the first quarter Monday night, and you knew from the get-go he was going to put up as many shots as it took. LeBron had 20 after the first quarter and 28 at halftime, and you hardly noticed he had gone to work.
With 50 in his sights, and then 60, Kobe drove to the basket with abandon. He had that look with the ball on the perimeter, that Jordanesque pose that resembles a rattlesnake about to strike its prey.
One basket away from 50 on Wednesday night, LeBron drove to his right, got double-teamed ... and passed to Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who missed a jumper. He passed to Mo Williams in the corner for a 3-pointer that missed before sizing up David Lee on a switch and crossing him over for a driving layup that gave him the magic number.
Kobe came in determined to make a statement that the Lakers will be fine without Andrew Bynum. When he was asked on his way out of the Garden on Monday night about LeBron trying to go point-for-point, Bryant said, "That would be my inclination, but he's more the passing type."
If LeBron was trying to make any statements, perhaps he was motivated by the fact that he's the lone All-Star from one of the top teams in the league. All the elite teams besides the Cavs have two All-Stars, something LeBron called a "smack in the face."
You got the feeling that he would've been happier with no points and 20 assists Wednesday night if it meant Williams -- the glaring snub in the coaches' voting -- would've put up an All-Star statement game. Williams had nine points on 3-for-12 shooting, but he'll probably get a call from commissioner David Stern to replace the injured Jameer Nelson, anyway. (Especially after Stern reads LeBron's comments in the newspapers.)
"That's totally disrespectful to give us one All-Star," LeBron said.
He should try being a Knick -- no All-Stars for eight years and counting. Kobe and LeBron put that sound back in the Garden this week, put the big-game tension back in it, and made it feel like long ago. Where Knicks fans are concerned, if only they could propel time forward, too.
No team has spoken as openly about it as the Knicks, but half the league is gutting its payroll and jockeying for position to lure LeBron or another supreme talent to its arena. Few of those teams have given their fans much to cheer about lately, but only in New York do they openly cheer the opposition. "How the mighty have fallen," was how longtime Garden nemesis Reggie Miller put it the other day, stunned by the love that was showered on Bryant in a gym that had so much venom for him.
"They do cheer for the Knicks, also," LeBron said. "But when they see a great performance, they definitely show their appreciation."
I asked LeBron, who understands dollars and cap space as well as pick-and-rolls, what he would do if he were running an NBA team. Would he sacrifice the present just for the remote chance that someone like him will walk through the door and make everything better?
"A lot of teams are definitely getting ready to put themselves in position when 17 months come up," LeBron said. "I think if I was in the position where I felt like our team was geared more toward the future than the present, then I would try to put myself in the position where at least I had a chance to maybe get a big-market player. But you still want to win games. You don't want to just crash on the season that you have."
The crash for cash is the method of choice in arenas all over the league, including the one Kobe and LeBron inscribed their names on this week.
"A lot of things have happened in this building," LeBron said. "Great history. The fans have seen a lot."
But for quite a while now, the great ones have been just passing through.