Earlier this week, NBA legend Michael Jordan courted headlines when he claimed that he prefers Kobe Bryant to LeBron James because of his five championships. LeBron responded soon after, claiming that any one criterion can't dictate the superiority of a player, and public discussion of the issue was effectively consigned to social media and TV debates.
Yet, during Sunday's All-Star Game, Kobe and LeBron engaged the debate, albeit indirectly. As the East attempted to close a narrowing gap against the West in the final minutes, they continually ran the offense through LeBron, who has elevated his play to a stratospheric level over the past few weeks. Bryant would not let James succeed, blocking him twice in crunch time (or at least the All-Star Game's version of it) to help lock down the 143-38 win for the West.
Check out a video of the biggest swat above, along with the Kevin Durant breakaway dunk that followed it. After the jump, read several quotes from Kobe, LeBron, and others on the matchup between the two stars.
Kobe did not view the blocks as particularly special or notable (all quotes via our Dan Devine):
Q: You played great on defense. Was this a signature defensive performance from you tonight?
Bryant: I don't know if it was signature. I'm known for my defense. I can defend. I'm pretty smart with my defense. I don't know if it was signature, though.
Kobe is known for his defense, but both firsthand observations and stats show that he hasn't been the lockdown defender he once was in recent seasons (despite making the NBA's All-Defense team). In truth, it's special when any player roofs LeBron, because it's just not something that happens very often.
LeBron, East (and Heat) coach Erik Spoelstra, and Knicks star Carmelo Anthony saw the exchange as part of what makes the All-Star Game so fun:
Q: Were you surprised Kobe guarded you at the end of the game?
James: No, he does it all the time. I am absolutely not surprised. It was all in good spirit. It was just two guys who love to compete, love to go at it. It was a lot of fun. [...]
Q: What did you make of Kobe and LeBron going after each other those last five minutes?
Spoelstra: Does that surprise you? That's what those guys live for. That's what we were all hoping for, was at least this game would be close going down the stretch so there would be some compelling basketball, and there definitely was for the fans. [...]
Q: You're pretty tight with both Kobe and LeBron. They seemed to gravitate toward each other in the fourth quarter.
Anthony: It's fun to be a part of it. It's fun to be out there with them. It's fun to see — it brings the best out of everybody, as you can see. It got the game going, kind of got the West team going. I love that competitive spirit, that competitive nature in Kobe and LeBron, but for everybody.
It's important to note that no one involved cites Jordan's comments as a factor in the one-on-one battle between Kobe and LeBron, and that makes sense. These player face each other often, and they're the two most popular (and divisive) stars in the NBA. Neither needs comments from Michael Jordan (or anyone, really) to compel him to compete, because they have that desire regardless.
That doesn't mean that Jordan's comments don't matter — they just apply more to how fans view things than the players involved. Plus, the Lakers and Heat faced off last Sunday, as well, with LeBron coming out as the clear winner. Did these blocks undo the results of that game?
It seems difficult to say that they did. Like most of what happens during an All-Star Game, the battle between these two superstars was a fun diversion in a loose approximation of NBA basketball. As ever, the more significant matchups will occur when the games actually count.