LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Los Angeles Lakers dried their eyes and took the Staples Center court for the first time since Kobe Bryant’s death with a resolve that would have made him proud.
Damian Lillard played through the basketball world’s collective heartbreak with his own remarkable effort.
Lillard scored 48 points and the Portland Trail Blazers beat Los Angeles 127-119 on Friday night in the Lakers’ first game since Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash.
Lillard hit seven 3-pointers and added 10 assists and nine rebounds in a phenomenal performance that sent the Blazers to a win over an opponent still dealing with the trauma of the crash five days earlier.
“We understood this was going to be a difficult one,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “We didn’t want to lose, but this week has been more about life than basketball. … We’ve got to continue to focus on the work. There’s therapy in the work.”
Both teams stood on the court during a poignant pregame tribute to Bryant including songs, Kobe highlights and a stirring speech by LeBron James. Highlights of Bryant’s career played during every break, but Lillard put on a show between the whistles.
Lillard’s seven 3-pointers gave him 40 in his last five games, setting an NBA record. But even the Blazers star knew results were secondary this time.
“Nobody is going to win tonight,” Lillard told ESPN during the game. “Kobe is gone. His family isn’t going to get him back. This is just basketball.”
James had 22 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds, and Anthony Davis had 37 points and 15 boards in the Lakers’ first game since last Saturday.
Hassan Whiteside scored 30 points, and C.J. McCollum added 19 for the Blazers.
The entire evening was likely both profoundly painful and cathartic for anyone who loves the Lakers or Bryant, who won five championships while playing his entire 20-year NBA career in purple and gold.
Bryant retired in 2016, but he remained a franchise icon and an inspiration to the current players, who learned about his death on their plane ride home from an East Coast road trip. Their next game against the Clippers was postponed, and the Lakers franchise persevered through a brutal week of coping with the loss.
“There was a lot of emotion out there,” said Lakers guard Troy Daniels, who grew up idolizing Bryant. “He was pretty much everybody’s idol in here, and there’s a lot of history in this organization that goes back to Kobe. … It was very hard (to watch the pregame ceremony). But we had our brothers, and LeBron gave a great speech.”
The Lakers finally got back to basketball after a pregame ceremony honoring Bryant’s life and his impact on basketball. Several Lakers teared up during the ceremony, as did the Blazers — but after both teams took 24-second and 8-second violations off the opening tip, they lifted the heavy moment with grace.
Davis began the game with red eyes, but managed to score 18 points in the first quarter alone. The Lakers committed 13 turnovers in the first half while playing with an obvious surfeit of energy.
Lillard, the gifted California native, went wild in the third quarter, scoring 23 points and hitting six 3-pointers in a virtuoso display of offensive skill.
The Lakers then trailed by 12 in the fourth quarter before a “Kobe! Kobe!” chant broke out. They promptly made a 9-0 run, but the Blazers stayed steadily ahead.
The ceremony began in a darkened arena with Usher singing “Amazing Grace.” Staples Center then showed a video of Bryant’s highlights narrated by his own voice.
James then took the microphone, discarded his prepared speech and commanded the crowd with stirring words from the heart. James joined the Lakers in 2018, and he spoke to Bryant several hours before the crash when Kobe congratulated LeBron on moving past him into third place on the NBA’s career scoring list.
“So in the words of Kobe Bryant, ‘Mamba out,'” James said. “But in the words of us, ‘not forgotten.’ Live on, brother.”
Lakers public address announcer Lawrence Tanter then introduced each of the Lakers’ five starters as Kobe Bryant, drawing tears and cheers from the sellout crowd.
The Lakers, the Clippers and the NHL’s Kings all lost their first games at Staples Center after the death of Bryant, who played his final 17 seasons in the downtown arena.
Trail Blazers: Carmelo Anthony missed the game for what the Blazers called personal reasons. Anthony and Bryant were close friends. Lillard became the third player in league history with at least six 3-pointers in five straight games.
Lakers: Quinn Cook, who idolized Bryant, was visibly affected by the ceremony. He checked into the game in the second quarter wearing his new No. 28 jersey, which represents Gianna (2) and Kobe (8). Alex Caruso played despite neck soreness.
Trail Blazers: Host the Utah Jazz on Saturday night.
Lakers: Visit the Sacramento Kings on Saturday night.
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