And then there was a basketball game to be played.
After all the words, both public and private, and the video tribute, and the 24 seconds of silence and the 24- and 8-second violations to honor Kobe Bryant, the Bulls and Spurs played a game.
It wasn’t easy, even if it marked the Spurs’ second since Bryant’s tragic death on Sunday in a helicopter crash.
“I think we’re all kind of raw,” Bulls coach Jim Boylen said. “I think the whole league is hurting.”
The Bulls prevailed 110-109 carrying with them the pregame message that Boylen sent, a conclusion many players had already reached on their own.
“We’ve lost one of the greatest competitors ever, in any sport. To honor him, I thought what we needed to do was compete and play as hard as we could,” Boylen said. “I thought our guys did that.”
Lose yourself in the game. That’s how Kris Dunn put it.
And Dunn did so by staging a memorable battle against DeMar DeRozan down the stretch. DeRozan missed the second of two free throws on a borderline foul call on Dunn with 0.2 seconds left; then also missed a putback attempt at the buzzer that was waved off, but could have been overturned by replay review if it came to it.
DeRozan finished with 36 points, although Dunn foiled him twice late and also posted his league-leading 30th game with multiple steals. He joined Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen as the only players in franchise history to record 100 steals in a season’s first 50 games.
“We were kind of in a fog,” Dunn said. “As the game went on, your competitive nature took over.”
LaVine showed perseverance that Bryant might’ve admired. After starting 1-for-8 and scoring just four first-half points, LaVine tallied 14 of his 23 points in the final period. That’s 15 straight 20-point games for LaVine, whose two free throws with 2.1 seconds left marked the winning points.
“I got off to a slow start. I didn’t get the whistle a couple times. And I made some boneheaded plays on layups trying to switch hand, missed some easy ones,” LaVine said. “Just had to settle in. I’m always confident. All I needed to see was one go in.
“I don’t think [Bryant] would like anybody not to go out there and compete. He was the ultimate competitor.”
And then there was Boylen, who improved to 2-0 against his former boss and exchanged a postgame hug with Gregg Popovich. Boylen’s decision to intentionally foul Jakob Poeltl twice in 29 seconds flipped the game. Poeltl, a 50.9 percent free-throw shooter, missed three of four.
“When you watch DeRozan make two defended great twos and he looked like he was in rhythm, we’re not going to pull off and double him because then we’re giving up a 3. If you look at points per possession on 50 percent FT shooter, you’re going to take the 50 percent FT shooter,” Boylen said. “That was really a math decision.”
Bryant consistently drew raves for his basketball intelligence. He might’ve appreciated the math equation.
As for one more numbers game, don’t look now. But the Bulls are within two games of the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed.