LOS ANGELES — Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant have faced off forever — or maybe it just feels that way, because for the past 20 seasons, as players have come and gone, as coaches were hired and fired, as NBA dynasties rose and fell, those two icons remained, meeting up year after year, again and again, one of the only certainties in a league of constant change.
Friday marked their 82nd matchup counting the postseason, a staggering but poetic figure. Yes, they have played a regular-season’s worth of games against each other, and just as the 82nd game marks a season’s end, so too did Friday mark their end: the last time they’ll ever play each other.
Fittingly, Duncan finished with a double-double (12 points and 13 rebounds), and Bryant scored 25 points on 10-of-25 shooting while playing through a dislocated middle right finger in the fourth quarter.
“He’s had injuries, played through stuff that nobody will ever even know about,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “He’s a warrior. He’s one of the toughest we’ve ever had.”
For Bryant, the game was not only his last against a player who also holds five championships and numerous accolades throughout a Hall of Fame career spent with one team, but it was Bryant’s last game against a Western Conference foe that stood in his way virtually every season that Bryant played.
Which is why, after Friday’s game, when Bryant was asked about what memories resonate most about his battles against the vaunted Spurs, he said with a smile, “The four times we beat them in the playoffs. Does that count? Four to three.”
Bryant finished with a 43-48 record against the Spurs (that includes nine games in which Duncan did not play), with averages of 25.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists. Bryant’s .410 regular-season winning percentage against the Spurs is the lowest against any opponent; the next lowest is .469 against the Miami Heat.
“It’s been so much fun competing against [Duncan] and that organization,” Bryant said. “I’ve truly, truly enjoyed it. They’ve pushed me to really fine-tune and sharpen my game. I’m a little sad that matchup is not going to happen.”
Bryant and Duncan met for the 52nd time in their regular-season careers, trailing only Duncan and Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki for most head-to-head matchups among active players, according to Elias Sports Bureau research.
“It was always a great game against him,” Duncan said. “You knew you had to bring your A game, because he’s going to bring the best out of you.”
They’ve been going at it since Dec. 5, 1997, and 13 of the 17 non-Bryant/Duncan players from that very first meeting have not played in the NBA in the last 10 seasons.
In fact, Derek Fisher is the only one besides Bryant and Duncan who has played even in the last seven seasons. What’s more, he was just fired as head coach of the New York Knicks.
Now, Bryant vs. Duncan and a memorable generation of Lakers-Spurs battles has ended, and just as Bryant will miss the Spurs, he’ll also miss facing Popovich, with whom Bryant shared a long and warm embrace before tipoff.
“It’s been a beautiful relationship. It’s been like that for a long, long time,” Bryant said. “I’ve been very thankful for the knowledge that he’s shared with me over the years, especially in All-Star Games, you get a chance to sit down and talk and I’ve always been a student of the game. I’ve always sat next to him and asked him questions and he’s been amazing about giving thorough responses to me and helping me learn and progress.”
Now each time Popovich’s Spurs face the Lakers, they will do so without going up against Bryant.
“Well, in some ways, it’ll be great,” Popovich said. “In other ways, we will miss him a lot. The whole league will miss him. He’s an iconic figure, so he’ll always be missed. But I don’t have to worry about guarding him again, that’s for sure.
Popovich was referencing a sequence that went viral during the recent All-Star Weekend in Toronto, when he coached Bryant and the rest of the Western Conference All-Stars.
During a Saturday practice session, Popovich guarded Bryant, who threw an elbow as he drove to the basket.
“He elbowed me,” Popovich said with his classic dry wittiness. “He did. I don’t know if you looked at that. He got competitive, and he elbowed me so he could get by me because I’m so quick, and I was staying in front of him. He’s a slow old dog, and I’m quick. The only way he could get around me was to cheat, so he raised that elbow and cracked me.”
Bryant laughed when told of Popovichs’s remarks.
“I could handle his quickness just fine,” Bryant said. “I just felt like throwing an elbow at him.”
Popovich can be notoriously brief with the media, but he spoke fondly of Bryant before the game, even recalling a recent matchup when Bryant hit four 3-pointers and kept the game close.
“With every one, I almost giggled,” Popovich said. “I elbowed [assistant coach] Ettore Messina or Ime Udoka, and I said, ‘Check it out. He’s still got those moments when he does it.’ I think we won the game in the last minute or 10 seconds or whatever it was. But he was taking the game over, and I was having fun watching him — kind of like the way you would do with Michael [Jordan] when he played. If you weren’t careful, you stopped coaching, and you just started watching because they’re so incredible.”
Bryant recently recalled the long hours he spent awake at night, diagramming how the Spurs might face him and possible counterattacks. Now, he can sleep easier, and so too can Popovich, who was also up late because of Bryant.
“For us, it was a lot scarier because, in his prime and in some of those moments now, no matter what you did defensively, he still could rise up over you and get off a relatively uncontested shot with balance,” Popovich said. “That would scare you because there’s really no defense for it.”
“I will never forget this day, going against that man,” Anderson said.
Nor will the Spurs, nor will Bryant.
Duncan was asked to describe Bryant in one word.
“Competitor,” Duncan said.
Spurs guard Tony Parker was asked to do the same.
“Legend,” Parker said.
Now, the historic rivals and historic icons are just that: history.