Kobe re­turns af­ter eight months, but Lak­ers lose

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS in Los An­ge­les

Nearly eight months af­ter Kobe Bryant limped off the Lak­ers’ home court with a torn Achilles ten­don and his ca­reer in doubt, he strug­gled to keep his com­po­sure when he fi­nally stepped back onto the same hard­wood. And though his come­back night didn’t quite go to script, Bryant could not help re­flect on the work nec­es­sary to get back on that court — and all the months of steady la­bor ahead to re­claim his game.

Bryant had nine points and eight re­bounds in his sea­son de­but, but Amir John­son scored a ca­reer-high 32 points in the trade-de­pleted Toronto Rap­tors’ 106-94 vic­tory over Los An­ge­les on Sun­day night.

Bryant be­gan his 18th NBA sea­son by go­ing two for nine with four as­sists and eight turnovers in 28 min­utes. The fourth-lead­ing scorer in NBA his­tory got hurt on April 12 and per­se­vered through sev­eral months of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion to re­turn for Los An­ge­les’ 20th game of the sea­son, only to strug­gle with his shot, his tim­ing and his new team­mates.

“My rhythm is com­pletely out of sync,” Bryant said. “But this is a start, and I guess a start is good.”

Nick Young scored 19 points for the Lak­ers, who went 10-9 with­out Bryant this sea­son, forg­ing a win­ning record with­out the five- time NBA cham­pion and with lit­tle help from fel­low in­jured MVP Steve Nash.

Ador­ing fans cheered Kobe’s ev­ery move and for­gave ev­ery mis­step, but Bryant couldn’t rally the Lak­ers late de­spite another huge game by Los An­ge­les’ re­serves. Bryant was touched by the fans’ re­cep­tion and his team­mates’ en­cour­age­ment, al­though his ruth­less com­pet­i­tive na­ture chafed against his nat­u­ral emo­tions be­fore the open­ing tip.

“You try to con­trol it as much as you can, but you can’t help think­ing about the hard work,” Bryant said. “You try to put it to the side as much as pos­si­ble and do your work ... It makes you ap­pre­ci­ate the game, this fran­chise and this city, and all we have been through.”

The Lak­ers never led, and Toronto im­prob­a­bly snapped its five-game los­ing streak de­spite play­ing with­out for­ward Rudy Gay, who is ex­pected to be traded to Sacra­mento on Mon­day as the cen­ter­piece of an ap­par­ent sev­en­player deal.

Kyle Lowry had 23 points and eight as­sists, and DeMar DeRozan added 10 of his 26 points in the fi­nal 4:35 of the Rap­tors’ first road win over the Lak­ers in 11 tries since Dec 28, 2001.

“(Bryant) was a lit­tle rusty, and you could tell be­cause a lot of his shots were short,” said DeRozan, who grew up in Los An­ge­les watch­ing Kobe. “We were go­ing against him his first game back, but he is go­ing to get it go­ing again and he will be back to the old Kobe.”

The Rap­tors had 11 play­ers avail­able af­ter hold­ing out Gay, center Aaron Gray and for­ward Quincy Acy, all set to head to the Kings in ex­change for Greivis Vasquez, Pa­trick Pat­ter­son, John Sal­mons and Chuck Hayes.

That turned out to be plenty, thanks to two Los An­ge­les na­tives. John­son, who at­tended nearby Westch­ester High School, went 14 for 17 and sur­passed his pre­vi­ous ca­reer high early in the third quar­ter. John­son didn’t take a shot in the fourth, but USC prod­uct DeRozan and Lowry held off the Lak­ers.

“We knew we were down be­cause half our team got traded, so our mind­set was just to go out there and play hard and win this game,” John­son said. “It was real emo­tional. It hap­pened to us last year in At­lanta, too. We talked to those guys, and Rudy was still at the ho­tel, so we called him in and told him how much we all ap­pre­ci­ated what they did for this team and the city.”

The build­ing had the buzz of a play­off game be­fore the open­ing tip, with thou­sands of fans train­ing cam­eras on Bryant dur­ing open­ing warm-ups. The build­ing erupted in loud ap­plause at ev­ery men­tion of Kobe, who was in­tro­duced last in the start­ing lineup to the thun­der­ous strains of The Im­pe­rial March — Darth Vader’s theme from Star Wars.

The crowd roared again the first time Bryant touched the ball, and he found Robert Sacre un­der­neath the hoop for an as­sist on Los An­ge­les’ first pos­ses­sion. With his wife, Vanessa, and two daugh­ters sit­ting court­side, Bryant hit a free throw for his first point in the sec­ond quar­ter, fol­lowed shortly by an eight-foot, dou­ble-pump, left-handed bank shot for his first field goal.

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