The Los Angeles Lakers will host the San Antonio Spurs in the first game following NBA All-Star Weekend. This matchup doesn’t generate as much buzz as it did five years ago and beyond, but the basketball world will be watching Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan, who will square off one last time on Friday.
This will be the 82nd time that Bryant and Duncan have faced off against each other, with Duncan edging the Mamba 42-39 in the series. To put this into perspective, Bryant and Duncan will have played an entire NBA season against each other at the conclusion of Friday’s contest. The Spurs have had the upper hand on Kobe in the regular season, but Bryant holds an 18-12 edge over San Antonio in the playoffs.
Expectations in terms of performance are not what they once were, but glimpses of their former greatness very well could be seen the next time that they take the floor. Bryant has struggled to shoot the ball in his 20th and final season, ranking last in the NBA in shooting percentage at just 34.9 percent. But he is averaging 25 points per game this month, which has been fun to watch (if you can stomach the high-volume shooting efforts). Duncan’s scoring numbers are down significantly from where he has been over the course of his career, but he is no longer the go-to option for the Spurs. He missed eight games due to a sore knee, but returned in the team’s last game before the break against the Magic. With an added week of rest before San Antonio travels to Los Angeles, Duncan should be relatively fresh and ready to make this last rodeo a fun one.
These guys are two of the best players to ever take the floor. ESPN released its NBA rank this week and included Bryant and Duncan at twelfth and eighth, respectively. Bryant has spent his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, the longest tenure in NBA history with one team. Duncan is tied with John Stockton for second on the list at 19 years, but could tie Kobe if he decides to play next year. The two veterans have combined to win 10 NBA championships, three MVP trophies, and have been invited to 33 All-Star Games.
We will most likely see a lot more of Bryant on Friday than Duncan, but that is heavily influenced by the supporting cast of each team. Bryant has still managed to crack the top 10 in usage this season, but is trying to lead and mentor an 11-44 team that is stocked with young players. Rookies D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, as well as sophomore Jordan Clarkson, have been taken under Vino’s wing and have performed well at times. But losing in Los Angeles will never be acceptable, keeping Bryant active and on the floor for much of the game. Duncan plays for one of the most efficient teams in the NBA in San Antonio and is surrounded by great coaching and a great team. Kawhi Leonard is now looked at as the star of the team and is the leading scorer. Tony Parker and Danny Green are both veterans in Gregg Popovich’s system, while LaMarcus Aldridge joined the Spurs as one of the marquee free agent signings this past summer. Aldridge is finally starting to settle in with his new team, averaging over 25 points per game this month.
On a micro level, this game has some important elements. The game itself does not have much allure. Los Angeles has lost 13 of its last 15 games, while San Antonio has won 13 of its last 15 games (including a 2-0 record against the Lakers). The Spurs also boast the highest average scoring margin for any team in NBA history.
Bryant has seen a number of tributes to his career this season, but I expect the first home tribute to come in this game — a joint tribute for two of the best players to ever play the game. There is a stark difference in the players’ approaches to leadership, but both were more than loyal to their teams and played the game the right way. The Spurs have the upper hand in this matchup, but not many people are going to be too focused on the outcome.