Since Kobe Bryant's retirement announcement, teams have rolled out the red carpet for his going-away party, and the Cleveland Cavaliers did the same on Wednesday night. There was a special highlight reel, an introduction on par with Bryant's Staples Center greeting and a "Ko-be" chant that offered a touching moment for the future Hall of Famer.
And then the actual basketball happened.
Kyrie Irving scored a game-high 35 points, and LeBron James added 29 as the Cavaliers unceremoniously kicked Bryant and his Lakers to the curb in a 120-111 win at Quickens Loan Arena.
Bryant, in his latest in a series of dispiriting performances, finished with 17 points. He made only five of his 16 shots and has fallen off a cliff since beginning the month with a season-best 38 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
In the Lakers' most recent three-game losing streak, Bryant is shooting 29.0 percent on an unwieldy 69 shots; it's fair to wonder if his insistence on chucking cost L.A two of those contests.
That narrative has been pervasive throughout the 2015-16 season. Players and coaches alike from opposing teams offer glowing assessments of Bryant, only to hours later systematically destroy his team as he gets his Willie-Mays-on-the-Mets on.
“He’s done so much, not only for the Lakers organization, but for me as a kid,” James said this week, per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. “Growing up, I was watching Kobe and things of that nature and also competing against him.”
The Lakers weren't much competition Wednesday, as Cleveland shot 51.1 percent and never trailed. James cobbled together his 12th straight 20-point effort, shooting an efficient 12-of-22 from the floor and knocking down multiple threes for just the second time in Cleveland's last 16 contests. He added 11 assists on a largely relaxing night in which he skated around the perimeter.
There was one pass, however, that Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell wishes LeBron would have avoided making:
Irving continued his recent return to form with another stellar effort. He's made at least half of his shots in seven of his last eight games, a period in which he's averaged 26.9 points per contest. While it's unclear how much of the change is due to Irving naturally rounding into form after missing the first 24 games, it's apparent he's much more comfortable playing for head coach Tyronn Lue.
David Zavac of Fear the Sword offered his assessment of Lue so far:
The only member of Cleveland's Big Three who didn't have a big game was Kevin Love, whose injury status may be the game's biggest on-court story. Love left in the second quarter with an undisclosed left shoulder injury after getting tangled up with Bryant on a post-up opportunity. That's the same shoulder Love hurt during last year's playoffs, so any reaggravation is a cause for concern.
Tristan Thompson atoned for Love's absence by putting together a 15-point, 13-rebound, four-assist evening that ranks among his best performances all season. Thompson made all six of his field-goal attempts and pushed L.A. bigs around all night. Lakers sideline reporter Mike Trudell noted the disparity in second-chance points during a particularly frustrating spell:
Lou Williams scored a team-high 28 points, and Jordan Clarkson added 22 points, seven assists and six boards for the Lakers. With Russell adding in a solid 15 points between lower-extremity injuries, the Lakers' top three guards accounted for 65 of the team's 111 points. Los Angeles also knocked down 13 three-pointers and had 22 free throws to Cleveland's 11.
As the clock was winding down, though, focus once again shifted to Bryant. Russell fouled Irving with 40 seconds remaining to give Bryant a chance to walk off the Quicken Loans Arena floor one last time on his own, where he was embraced by James and others.
It was a special moment in a night of disappointment—a feeling more and more familiar to Bryant as his career winds to a close.
NBATV offered James' postgame thoughts:
Bryant offered his candid thoughts on where the Lakers stand, per Medina: "We suck."
He also made it clear the grind of the season is wearing on his aging body: "I feel horrible, seriously."
On a lighter note, Russell discussed what it was like to take a LeBron fastball: "It was unexpected. If I expected it, it would've hurt more. It was tough. Every guy knows the feeling. Laugh about it now. Then 2 months from now, somebody else will have something to laugh about."
Bryant seemed touched by the Cleveland crowd: "I really appreciate the amount of respect the fans gave me here tonight."
He also offered his thoughts on LeBron: "I think his greatest strength is his ability to communicate and instill confidence in others."
And Irving: "He has a killer mentality, can shoot the long ball, his midrange game is excellent & he can finish at the rim."
Follow Tyler Conway (@jtylerconway) on Twitter.