Houston (CBS HOUSTON) – For much of Sunday afternoon, the Rockets’ disappointing season to date and their ongoing pursuit of a playoff berth were on the back burner.
Kobe Bryant, in the twilight of his career, had one more masterful performance in him against Houston.
Bryant dropped 35 points in a vintage effort but he couldn’t turn back the clock on the scoreboard, as Houston used a three-point barrage in the fourth quarter to hold off the Lakers, 130-110, in the Toyota Center.
Bryant, playing in front of several thousand purple-and-gold clad fans, thrilled the pro-Lakers contingent with a deep trey to end the third quarter, a nifty hook shot a la fellow Lakers idol Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a final exit that drew a torrent of applause with 1:41 remaining.
It was the 28th 30-plus point game Bryant has notched against Houston, a team he has scorched for 20 years as a Laker. Kobe only scored more points against Minnesota (38) during this 2015-16 season, his personal retirement tour.
It was no surprise he saved such an outburst for Houston, either. Bryant’s averaged 26.8 points in 60 regular-season games against the Rockets and was 3-0 in postseason series vs. Houston.
“Our playoff matchups are the ones that stick out the most, competing against that tough team they had and taking us to a seven-game series [in 2009],” Bryant said when asked what he’ll remember about his career against the Rockets. “It was a lot of fun.”
Quite simply, the Rockets were the side show, even as they moved a game back of Utah for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.
James Harden, a Los Angeles native, tried his best to steal the spotlight from his hometown hero. Harden overcame a slow shooting start to drop 40 points, dish out 13 assists, grab four steals and nab four rebounds.
A 12th 40-point outing tied Harden with the Warriors’ Steph Curry for the most 40-point games in the NBA this season.
“Today was a special day, just seeing a legend in his last game here,” Harden said. “I embraced it, and I think the entire Toyota Center embraced it… It was an exciting game, something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Harden spurred the run that finally put a plucky Lakers bunch, which was running on the adrenaline in the building, away with a trio of consecutive 3-pointers. That stretched a six-point Houston edge to 12, and the Rockets followed it up four more long-range daggers in the next two minutes.
Houston posted a whopping 42 points in the fourth quarter.
When Harden was struggling with his shooting range early, he maneuvered inside with some patented Euro steps to maintain Houston’s slim lead for much of the opening half. Those slick handles left Bryant in awe about Harden’s ability and potential to be a durable NBA star.
“He’s such a fantastic player,” Bryant said of Harden. “All I could do is sit on the sidelines and shake my head, the plays he was making. Those are difficult shots for 90 percent of the league, and he makes it look effortless.”
There was even talk after the game that Bryant could mentor Harden going forward.
“If there’s some things I see that could potentially help him, I’ll hit him up,” Kobe said, citing Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and Houston’s own Hakeem Olajuwon as his own mentors.
Jordan Clarkson added 21 for LA, while former Kobe teammate Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley each dropped 19 points for Houston.
Ariza played with Bryant for two seasons in Los Angeles, including an NBA title campaign in 2009. Also a Los Angeles native, Ariza said it was surreal knowing Bryant’s career is winding down.
“That’s somebody we grew up admiring, watching every move he made,” Ariza said. “For this to be his 20th season and for it to come to an end, it’s kind of weird. I can’t lie to you. To think he’s not going to be out there next year, it’s weird.”
The Rockets travel to Minnesota tomorrow night before closing out the season against Sacramento at home on Wednesday, their playoff hopes still alive in the season’s final week.
“We understand the situation,” Rockets coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “We need to win. Put the pressure on somebody else to see if they make a mistake or slip up. But we need to win first.”
With Dallas’s loss to the Clippers on Sunday. Houston is technically still alive for the No. 7 seed, especially considering the Mavericks face the Jazz on Monday.