Kobe Bryant is 33 years old, has spent nearly half his life in the NBA, is dealing with a significant wrist injury and has taken about 3,000 more shots in his career than any other active player.
Given all that, some may think he’s a candidate to start slowing down.
LeBron James is not among those who would even consider that possible.
The NBA’s top two scorers this season – Bryant at 30.8 points per game, James at 29.8 – go head-to-head Thursday night, when the Los Angeles Lakers visit the Miami Heat. Even with subplots including James facing his former Cleveland coach in the Lakers’ Mike Brown, the possibility that Dwyane Wade may sit out again with a sprained right ankle and hints that Miami center Eddy Curry may make his Heat debut, all eyes will be on one thing.
Kobe vs. LeBron.
“We know how great of a player, how competitive he is,” James said. “And he’s not going to sell himself short, either. … He’s a scorer. He’s a flat-out scorer.”
Bryant is coming off a stretch where he scored at least 40 points in four straight games, a streak snapped in a 73-70 win over Dallas on Monday night. Bryant entered Wednesday ranking seventh in the NBA in minutes per game (37.7), a stat made even more impressive when considering that only one of the six players ahead of him on that list is older than 27.
“I do want to get it down,” Brown said. “He’s played a ton of minutes too early right now.”
Hey, if Brown wants to start that policy on Thursday, it doesn’t sound like the Heat would complain.
“He looks healthier and quicker than he did last year,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “I think everybody knew he wasn’t 100 percent last year. He was just grinding through it and the lockout was probably beneficial for him, the extra time but also he was able to get stronger. He looks very lean. He looks in great shape.”
The Lakers have played 10 of their first 15 games at home (or 11, technically, since one of their five “road” games was at the Los Angeles Clippers). This trip is a quick but lengthy one, with the Lakers flying cross-country on Wednesday, visiting Miami on Thursday, Orlando on Friday and then heading back home in time for a matchup Sunday against Indiana.
It’s the first Eastern Conference trip of the year for the Lakers.
“Just get ready. Just get ready,” Bryant said, when asked what the Lakers needed to do to prep for Miami and Orlando. “It’s our first really long road trip in terms of distance and travel and with a new coaching staff, kind of getting used to the travel schedule and how they do things. Looking forward to it.”
Some would say that scoring wise, Bryant looks as good as ever.
Sure, it’s early, but Bryant is on pace to average 30 points for the first time in five seasons. And he’s putting up those numbers even though a ligament issue in his right wrist – his shooting side – is hampering him at times on long jumpers, noted by his career-low 24 percent success rate from 3-point range so far this year.
He’s more than compensating in other areas of his game.
“Not a surprise,” Heat forward Shane Battier said. “That’s what he’s done his entire career. You know when you’re getting ready to lace `em up against Kobe Bryant, you load up for bear. It’s going to be a work-filled day.”
For James, some of that work will come on the defensive end.
With it sounding like a strong possibility Wade will not play – Spoelstra said his status Wednesday remains day-to-day – the Heat will still run a steady stream of defenders at Bryant, with candidates including Battier, James Jones, Mike Miller and James.
“He’ll have to take that challenge at some point,” Spoelstra said. “Whether he does it at the beginning of the game, I’m not sure. … He can’t afford to get tired right now. He just simply can’t.”
Head-to-head, James and Bryant have remarkably similar numbers. Over the last 11 meetings between their teams, James is averaging 27.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7 assists, while Bryant is putting up 28.0 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.6 assists.
There is one significant difference in that span: James’ team have gone 9-2 against the Lakers.
“It’s not about LeBron and Kobe,” James said. “It’s the Lakers versus Heat thing. … We just try to do what’s best for our team and help our teams win.”