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Kobe Bryant exits All-Star stage in appreciation, with perspective

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Kobe Bryant exits All-Star stage in appreciation, with perspective

TORONTO—The tributes came, then came more fervently and passionately for Kobe Bryant in his last All-Star Game as he stood alone on the Western Conference sideline with one of the greatest showmen, Magic Johnson, saluting him before tipoff.

The tears didn’t come streaming down Bryant’s face in his last All-Star game, but they didn’t have to because the heartless assassin has already shown more humanity in his last season than many knew existed.

He happily posed for photos with some officials he likely used to berate during heated playoff battles or Tuesday nights in Memphis, when intensity was at all-time highs or simply because his mood determined he should.

But now the man who coldly and almost clinically disrupted Michael Jordan’s last All-Star moment in Atlanta had his own, and instead of launching up jumper after jumper with the young guns watching, waiting their turn, Bryant ceded the stage.

Bryant scored 11 with seven assists and six rebounds in 26 minutes as Russell Westbrook’s boundless energy and bottomless thirst led to 31 points and a second straight All-Star MVP in a 196-173 Western Conference win at Air Canada Centre.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

LeBron James had his hand at stirring up some competition, telling Bryant to “bring it” and spreading his arms wide while forming a defensive stance, one of the few times there appeared to be some genuine competition in a game that had very, very little.

Instead of ruthlessly going at James, he playfully faded away on a long jumper that came up short. More pointedly, he seemed to have more fun going one on one with Dwyane Wade’s son and Chris Paul’s son at halftime during warmups.

“None of us have seen that part,” said Pau Gasol, Bulls center and a former teammate of Bryant for two championship runs. “At this point of his life and career, the older you get, the bigger the gap is with younger players. When he was playing his first All-Star game, some of these players were in kindergarten.”

Bryant had a little time for the adults, as he and the older elder statesman Gasol playfully went at each other a few times on the post, and sharing moments throughout the evening.

“We talked about it before the game, to see if we posted each other up who would be successful,” Gasol said. “We both tried it but neither of us was successful. It was fun, a cool bonding moment.”

Gasol scored nine with seven rebounds in 15 minutes of playing time as he was selected as teammate Jimmy Butler’s replacement days before All-Star weekend. Safe to say, he was happy to be there but had to adjust to the uber lack of defense being played in the highest-scoring All-Star game in NBA history.

[MORE: Zach LaVine, Aaron Gordon combine for best-ever NBA Dunk Contest]

“I like to compete and play the right way. Games like these are difficult to do that but I tried to get myself going,” Gasol said. “You don’t anticipate that. You know these games aren’t known for their defense but today was a little…absent.”

He laughed as he said it, but the game was a showcase for some of the younger stars, the establishment and the resurgent player who came within a basket of overtaking Wilt Chamberlain as the all-time single-game scoring leader.

Paul George scored 41 in his return to the All-Star stage, a welcome sight as many remember his gruesome injury during USA Basketball camp in Las Vegas in 2014 and believed he would never return to form as one of the top swingmen.

Chicago Native Anthony Davis feasted on uncontested alley-oop dunks to score 24 while reigning MVP Stephen Curry scored 26, including a 40-footer with seconds remaining to conclude the scoring on the evening.

Curry’s triple came moments after Bryant’s final curtain call, as he exited the game to chants of “Kobe! Kobe!” with 1:06 remaining, getting hugs and daps on the head from virtually everyone on the floor.

The man who said he could never envision being elder statesman two days ago, like Michael Jordan and Julius Erving before him, had essentially successfully passed the torch to the young players whose flame burns bright and star shines just as bright as a new era is ushered into the NBA.

[RELATED: Butler feeling better after being 'scared' with injury]

“As a younger player, I couldn't even see the next day," he said Friday. "No, when you're young, you never think you'll get old. You're always just moment to moment. You think it's never going to end, the body is never going to hurt, never going to give out. … I'm enjoying this whole thing with being around these players and talking to them one more time. The competitiveness in terms of me trying to establish something and prove something, that's gone."

But even as he will join the likes of Bill Russell, Magic Johnson and Jordan, luminaries, ambassadors whom the younger generation will look to for approval, he found there wasn’t a challenge on the floor, not in the way he challenged Jordan in his very first All-Star game 18 years ago.

“Michael was still Michael,” said Bryant, acknowledging his mortality. “It was 98. He was that guy. I’m 20 years in and it’s different. These kids, they’re so many generations removed from that, it’s not even about that anymore.”

But on this night, it was about Kobe and for once, he soaked in the appreciation the way an ambassador is supposed to.

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

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USA TODAY

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

Outspoken Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban conceded his team was playing for draft lottery position last season, but insisted it would be a one year only strategy.

Dallas finished tied for the league’s third worst record, but fell to fifth after the lottery.

So, Cuban and the Mavs’ front office decided to make a bold move on draft night, trading their 2019 first round pick to Atlanta to move up two spots for a chance to select international sensation Luka Doncic.

Early in the season, Doncic has more than lived up to the hype, showing the creativity and flair that made him such a fan favorite on the European professional circuit. Through the Mavs’ first two games, Doncic is averaging 18 points, 7 rebounds and 3.5 assists while giving Rick Carlisle’s team a much-needed boost in transition.

Doncic and second-year guard Dennis Smith Jr. will give opposing teams nightmares in the open court all season long. They led the offensive onslaught in the Mavs’ 140-136 win over Minnesota Saturday night, combining for 45 points. Doncic finished with 26 points, while Smith scored 10 of his 19 in the 4th quarter, including a tie-breaking three-point play with six seconds left.

Veteran swing-man Wesley Matthews added 19 against the Timberwolves, and his 3 point shooting helps the Mavs maintain floor balance in half-court sets.

The Mavs also strengthened their front court in the off-season, signing veteran center DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Dallas was overmatched in the middle last season, with future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell giving up size in the post, but Jordan will provide rim protection and an alley-oop threat when Doncic, Smith Jr. or veteran point guard J.J. Barea drive to the basket. Jordan had a big game in the home opening win over Minnesota, scoring 22 points, pulling down 10 rebounds and blocking 5 shots.

Nowitzki, starting small forward Harrison Barnes and backup guard Devin Harris all missed Saturday’s game because of injuries, but Barnes and Harris are considered game-time decisions against the Bulls.

Here’s what the Bulls will need to do to get their first victory of the season Monday night.

1. GET BACK ON DEFENSE! Doncic and Smith Jr. are deadly in the open court, capable of making spectacular plays to bring the home crowd to life. The Bulls’ players have to sprint back on defense after missed shots to cut off transition opportunities, or it’s going to be a long night. The Mavs are averaging 128 points through the first two games.

2. CLOSE OUT ON 3-POINT SHOOTERS This will be a familiar theme in my keys until the Bulls start doing a better job of matching up in transition and closing out on three point threats. Detroit’s win at the United Center on Saturday came down to the Pistons’ 18-40 shooting from three-point range, and Dallas has even more players capable of doing damage from beyond the arc.

3. LET DUNN DO IT Getting Kris Dunn back from paternity leave should make a big difference on both ends of the court. Dunn has the athleticism and physicality to match up with either Doncic or Smith Jr., and his defensive skills will be critical in keeping the Mavs from turning this game into a track meet.

On the offensive end, Dunn need to be patient and get the ball into the hands of the Bulls’ top scorers, Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis. Even though Fred Hoiberg wants his team to play at a fast pace, they’ll need to pick their spots on when to run against the explosive Mavs.

As always, turn to NBC Sports Chicago for the very best pre and post-game coverage. Kendall Gill and Will Perdue join me for Bulls Pregame Live at 7 p.m/, and we’ll have expanded post-game analysis when the action goes final in Dallas. You can also stream the shows live on the brand new My Teams by NBC Sports app.

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

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USA TODAY

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”