LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — With just less than five minutes remaining in the first quarter of Game 4 on Monday, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope laid the ball in as he absorbed contact from Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard.
The referee whistled a foul, awarding Caldwell-Pope a trip to the line for an and-1 free throw, giving LeBron James an occasion to take a glance at the scoreboard.
With the Lakers off to a hot start while wearing special “Black Mamba” jerseys to commemorate Kobe Bryant on Aug. 24 — 8/24 on the calendar — James saw this wasn’t just any early 16-point lead.
“When I looked up there and saw [the score was] 24-8, I was like, OK, this is a [sign],” James said. “He’s here in the building.”
The Lakers went on to rout the Trail Blazers 135-115 to take a 3-1 stranglehold on their first-round series. They not only continued to avenge their series-opening loss to Portland, but also made up for a Jan. 31 loss to the Blazers in Los Angeles in the franchise’s first game played after Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, were among nine victims to die in a helicopter crash.
That night, after Usher serenaded the sold-out crowd with a soulful rendition of “Amazing Grace,” Ben Hong delivered a pitch-perfect performance of “Hallelujah” on the cello, Boyz II Men sang the national anthem and James addressed Staples Center with an off-the-cuff speech, Lillard scored 48 points to steal the show, while James scuffled through a 9-for-22 shooting night with five turnovers.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel said Monday’s game, played a day after what would have been Bryant’s 42nd birthday while Los Angeles’ City Hall was lit up in purple and gold to celebrate Kobe Bryant Day, carried its own emotional weight.
“The emotional aspect did feel different than any other game we played since we’ve been in the bubble,” Vogel said. “Obviously Kobe is dearly missed. To have a game on 8/24, Kobe Bryant Day, all of us in our whole organization, but particularly our players, felt that and carried that emotion onto the playing court.”
Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka, who was close friends with Bryant and his family after working as his longtime agent, addressed the team in the pregame locker room, sources told ESPN.
The Lakers also watched Nike’s newest spot, titled “Better,” in which rapper Kendrick Lamar describes Bryant’s incessant drive to achieve self-actualization through constant improvement, before the game.
Then L.A. went out and played better than it had since arriving in Orlando, Florida, last month, with the Lakers’ 80-51 lead at halftime marking just the second time in the past 15 years a team scored 80-plus points in the first half of a playoff game, according to data compiled by ESPN Stats & Information.
“It was an honor,” said James, who dominated with 30 points on 10-for-12 shooting (4-for-5 from 3), 10 assists, 6 rebounds and a block in just 28 minutes. “It’s been an honor to just put on the Laker uniform. Even before the passing of the great Kobe Bryant. Tonight was another one of those moments for myself, for this organization, for all the players … To go out there one day removed from his birthday and then his day of 8/24, to be able to have a game on this day, the stars aligned.”
L.A.’s 25 fast-break points were the most by a team in the postseason since Bryant’s Lakers had 25 in Game 2 of the 2001 NBA Finals. And the Lakers’ 56.3% mark from the field was the team’s highest field goal percentage in a playoff game since Bryant’s Lakers shot 57.7% in Game 2 of the 2010 Western Conference finals.
Anthony Davis, who left the game early with back spasms but said he will play in Game 5, wore one of the “Black Mamba” jerseys — which feature a snakeskin print that was designed with Bryant’s input and debuted during the 2017-18 season — to his postgame news conference.
“We just wanted to make sure that we did everything we could to get this win for him,” Davis said.
For Pelinka, who wasn’t just Bryant’s confidant, but also the godfather to Gianna, the performance felt like something reminiscent of his friend’s standards.
“When we played Portland after the tragedy we played, understandably, with heavy hearts,” Pelinka told ESPN. “Tonight we were able to play with uplifted spirits to honor the beautiful lives of Kobe and Gigi. We played this game like they both played — with a laser focus on the highest level of competition, and with a purpose of getting better.
“We are very grateful for that.”