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Following Kobe Bryant’s final season has been a bit surreal. After he announced this season would be his last, he has been showered with cheers, treated to tribute videos from NBA legends, and been as well received as he ever has been. Considering this is a guy who has received “MVP” chants in opposing stadiums over the course of his career, this is saying something.

But time is getting shorter. We are now past the halfway point, the Lakers playing their 44th game on Wednesday and their 45th tonight against the Spurs. There will only be 38 more of these regular season contests (starting tonight) and a few other moments to celebrate it all before it’s over. The finality of that hasn’t yet fully sunk in, but it will. This week, for me at least, that process took another step forward.

It started with the final tally of votes for the All-Star game being released. Kobe maintained his lead as the top vote-getter, outpacing reigning league MVP Steph Curry and the always present LeBron James. Kobe has been named an all-star every season the game has occurred (curse you 1999 lockout!) since 1998. Injuries have kept him out of several contests, but this year I don’t think anything could keep him from stepping on that court one last time.

Second, though, has been the build up to today, January 22nd. Ten years ago today Kobe scored 81 points against the Raptors. It is, for many, his greatest individual performance and the feat by which he will most be remembered. That was the night where it all sort of came together — him being incredibly hot, the Lakers playing poorly enough where his scoring exploits were a needed component for the team to compete, and the Raptors being just bad enough defensively to give him the room to establish his rhythm. It all culminated with him getting to 81.

In the lead-up to today, we have gotten the best glimpse into that night to this point. First was this fantastic oral history of the game put together by ESPN’s Arash Markazi. Arash spoke to many people — broadcasters, front office members, players, and more — who were all there that night and/or involved in some way. There were so many great anecdotes revealed, but one of my favorites was the exchange between Kobe and Brian Shaw from the night Kobe outscored the Mavs 62-61 through three quarters:

A month before playing Toronto, Bryant outscored the Dallas Mavericks by himself through three quarters 62-61 (the Lakers’ lead was 95-61). Bryant played only 33 minutes that night and sat out the entire fourth quarter of the Lakers’ blowout win over the eventual Western Conference champions. When he was asked after the game how many points he would have finished with had he played the fourth quarter, Bryant shrugged his shoulders. “Probably 80,” he said. “I was in a really, really good groove.”

Brian Shaw: After the third quarter, the players were on the bench and the coaches went out and huddled on the court. Phil asked me to go ask Kobe if he wanted to stay in the game and try to get 70 and then come out. So I went up to Kobe and said, “Hey, Coach wants to know if you want to stay in for the first few minutes of the fourth quarter, get 70 and then come out.” He looked up at the scoreboard, and he said, “Nah, I’ll get it another time.” I looked at him and I kind of got mad. I said: “What?! You have a chance to get 70 points. How many people can say they scored 70 points? Just stay in the first few minutes and get another eight points, get 70 and then come out of the game.” He said: “I’ll do it when we really need it. I’ll get it when it really matters.”

Kobe Bryant: Brian was mad. He was like: “Man, are you crazy? You know what you could score tonight?” I just said, “I’ll do it when we really need it.” Brian was like, “What?!” It was something that just rolled off my tongue because I trained extremely hard and the physical tools were there. I just felt like I could have a game like that again.

The concept of “I’ll do it when we really need it” is so outlandish to me, yet, when you listen to Kobe talk about his preparation heading into that season, totally believable and understandable at the same time. Friend of the site @basquiatball recorded a bunch of games from that season and let me borrow the DVD’s (I’ll return them some day, J.D.!) and I have randomly watched multiple games from that season. Kobe really was on a level that is hard to describe. He was simply beyond what defenses what prepared for.

The second tribute I really enjoyed was the five short videos the NBA released about that night:

Looking back at that night combined with this week’s news of Kobe being named a starter in the ASG really has reminded me that we are getting close to the end. Ultimately, this makes me sad, but also gives me pause to remember to appreciate what Kobe has done in his career. The first to approach Wilt’s 100 and closing down his last season, the memories of what he’s accomplished really will live on forever.

I’ve written it before, but I’ve not been the biggest fan of the Lakers playing on Christmas. This is mostly for selfish reasons — I’d much prefer to just relax with family and not have to be the guy who shuns everyone while totally investing in another Lakers’ game. I do that 81 other times a year, one day off — on Christmas no less — isn’t too much to ask for.

This year, though, I don’t have that same feeling. And, again, it’s for selfish reasons. This will be Kobe Bryant’s final game on Christmas and I want to see him perform. If his recent level of play holds up, it should be a good final game too. But even if it doesn’t, I still want to watch him do his thing.

Kobe’s the NBA’s all-time leading scorer on Christmas day with 383 points on his resumé. His filled highlight reels with some amazing moments that are engrained in my memory. You know, ones like these:

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With this being Kobe Bryant’s 20th and final season with the Lakers, the organization has been running a pretty cool feature all season called “This Day in Kobe History” (#TDIKH) where they chronicle great games or key events throughout Kobe’s career. Today, December 20th, just so happens to be one of my favorite Kobe games ever:

This game is often overshadowed by Kobe’s 81 point performance against the Raptors which came a month later (January 22, 2006). But, for my money, Kobe’s outburst 10 years ago was actually more impressive.

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Earlier in the week we talked about recent improved play from Kobe and him embracing the type of player he did not envision he would hold on to become late in his career. The last couple of games, however, Kobe has even exceeded that level of play.

It may be too early to say that this is the new norm, but we’re approaching the point where those who buried him as being “done” might do well to re-evaluate those firm statements and call them premature. Again, the sample needs to get bigger, but the fact that there’s a sample at all is encouraging.

The latest evidence of a revival came on Thursday night, where Kobe seemed intent to give us a game version of the #throwbackthursday hashtag:

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Before the Lakers played the Wizards last week, I answered a few questions for Wizards’ site Truth About It in the lead up to that game. It was mostly about the young players and my feelings in the aftermath of Kobe’s retirement announcement. One question, though, was about my three favorite Kobe “moments” from his career. I thought long and hard on that question and ultimately offered up this answer:

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I try my best to provide substantive commentary and insight on the Lakers every time I post here. But, sometimes, you just have to throw up a video and say as little as possible. That’s how I feel here.

I mean, what is there really to say? This video is fantastic and gave me the chills throughout the entire thing. And, note, this is only a trailer for a longer video that will eventually drop too. Best believe that video will get posted here too.

(h/t to @justrycole for finding the video and to Basketball Forever for putting this video together – it really is fantastic)

The Lakers may have lost to the Hawks on Friday night, but how they went about doing it wasn’t the worst thing ever. Yes, they started out slowly and allowed the Hawks to take control of the game. And, yes, Kobe had another poor shooting night. But the team, overall, still played hard throughout, battled back late in the game to get within four points, and with a little more experience may have found a way to keep it close with a chance to win at the end.

Individually, though, D’Angelo Russell’s play was one of the bright spots. While his shooting percentage wasn’t great (6-16) and he had too many turnovers (7 — though, as I’ve noted, high turnovers aren’t necessarily the worst thing for the long term development a young point guard), he was aggressive, shot the three ball well (4-7), and looked to take control of the game in the 4th quarter.

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On Thursday night, after the TNT double-header, the network aired a sit-down interview between Kobe and Ernie Johnson. The entire thing was great and the entire 7 minute clip is available below. While I wish it were longer — Johnson is one of the best in the business and Kobe always seems to give a good interview — they covered a fair amount of ground in their short time.

Check out the clip after the jump.

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