The Bulls realized early in the fourth quarter Sunday against the Los Angeles Lakers there was nothing ordinary about the game they were attempting to finish off.
A 15-3 run to end the third quarter had pushed the Bulls' lead 16 by the end of the third quarter, and an E'Twaun Moore basket extended the lead to 19, their biggest of the night.
It's about the time that the sellout crowd of 23,143, littered with No. 24 "Bryant" jerseys, began chanting the name of the man all in attendance had come to see.
The chants of "Ko-be! Ko-be!" persisted until late in the period, when the Lakers had roared back to pull within a single possession of the Bulls, and Bryant re-entered to a rousing applause from the United Center crowd.
Bryant scored just two more points after re-entering, and the Bulls were able to stave off the Lakers' comeback bid by scoring 12 of the game's final 17 points in a 126-115 victory over the Lakers. The night honoring and celebrating Bryant's historic 20-year career was as unique a situation as the Bulls had faced this season, but Fred Hoiberg understood its importance within the game.
"Look, he deserves everything he's getting out there," he said after the game. "I'm sure it's happening in every gym that he's playing in. It's very well-deserved for Kobe, everything he's getting out there. He deserves this farewell tour, whatever you want to call it, send-off, that he's got going."
Celebration aside, the Bulls were able to move past the unique circumstances and perform at a level they needed to against an inferior opponent. The 126 points were a regulation season-high, and they topped a season-high by shooting nearly 56 percent from the field and 68 percent from beyond the arc in their second consecutive victory for the first time since Jan. 5 and 7.
E'Twaun Moore matched a career-high with 24 points, Derrick Rose continued his stellar play with 24 points and six assists and six players scored 17 or more points, including Bobby Portis' 17 points and seven rebounds off the bench.
Bryant was the main attraction from the moment he entered the United Center. He spoke with members of the media for 15 minutes prior to the game, fielding questions ranging from his favorite memories playing against Michael Jordan, to nearly signing with the Bulls in 2004 and being traded there in 2007, to his message of patience to Bulls fans enduring the team’s recent struggles.
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Bryant also received a special two-minute video from the Bulls during pregame introductions and was introduced at the end of the video by former teammate Pau Gasol, who spent parts of seven seasons and won two titles with Bryant.
The five-time champion, who has endured his struggles in his final NBA season but played better of late, showed flashes of his old self in his 15th appearance at the United Center. Bryant connected on an early 3-pointer and scored on four jumpers in a five-possession span that tied the game early in the third quarter, his final jumper bringing the sellout United Center crowd of 23,143 to their feet.
But Bryant’s theatrics were short-lived for the 11-46 Lakers.
The Bulls’ sharpshooting peaked in a dominant third quarter in which they shot 62 percent, including 5-for-7 from beyond the arc. Moore made all three of his attempts, Doug McDermott continued his hot shooting with another triple and Gasol added one from the top of the key, shooting a glance to Bryant following Bryant’s fourth bucket of the sequence. The Bulls tallied 30 more assists on Sunday, two days after logging 32 in a win over the Raptors.
"I'm encouraged with what we're doing offensively right now. The ball is moving so much better than it was earlier in the season," Hoiberg said. We're making more simple plays."
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They ended the quarter on a 15-3 run and scored the first three points of the fourth quarter, seemingly putting the game out of reach. The Lakers responded in the final quarter, thanks to stellar performances from youngsters Julius Randle (22 points, 12 rebounds) and D'Angelo Russell (15 points, six assists), while Jordan Clarkson scored 12 of his 20 points in the final stanza. During the Lakers' 18-4 run fans began clamoring for head coach Byron Scott to substitute Bryant, who had played 25 minutes to that point, back into the game.
Bryant re-entered the game for the final time after Moore’s triple put the Bulls up seven with three minutes remaining. Bryant added two free throws to finish with 22 points on 8-for-20 shooting before jumpers from Gasol and Rose iced the game.
Bryant exited with 45 seconds remaining to one final standing ovation from the crowd. After the final horn sounded he found Gasol and embraced his longtime friend for the final time on an NBA court.
"We shared a few moments now but knowing this one was the last one on an NBA floor, it’s special to share that moment," Gasol said after the game. "To have the bond that we have, the respect and admiration and friendship. So it’s awesome and I love it. I feel honored that I have this type of relationship, where I’ve earned his respect throughout the years and that we won a couple championships together, which is pretty amazing."