The Lakers' season already started sinking when Kobe Bryant was forced to acknowledge something.
The sad comparisons to the end of Michael Jordan's career were "reachable content," he said back in November, understanding the parallels between Jordan's two nondescript years with the Washington Wizards and his own marooning on the Lakers' talent-strapped island.
Then came the mutiny of his body.
His successes this season have been fewer and farther between, buried among eight-for-30 shooting efforts, nine-turnover games and more recently a three-for-19 shooting night.
He uncorked an old one Thursday, handing out a career-high 17 assists in his 19th NBA season, but the Lakers lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers, 109-102, at Staples Center.
Bryant also had 19 points on seven-for-14 shooting and only three turnovers as fans excitedly yelled "We want Kobe!" in unison when he was on the bench and the now less-familiar "M-V-P" chant when he was on the court in the fourth quarter.
Bryant even took more than a few shifts on defense trying to guard the bigger, bulkier and certainly younger LeBron James. It didn't stop the Lakers (12-28) from slipping to 6-15 at home.
Bryant credited Shaquille O'Neal, of all people, who continually told a younger Bryant to make him look good, Bryant said with a smile.
But Bryant wasn't so eager to talk about maybe being shut down for the season at some point. Lakers Coach Byron Scott recently said the Lakers would discuss it if they were out of playoff contention in March.
"It's a tough one for me. I want to play," he said. "But at the same time, I understand his position, I understand management's position.
"I will do what they ask me."
His previous career-high was 15 assists in 2002 against Washington. Jordan was on that Wizards team, scoring 22 points that night but making only eight of 20 shots in a Lakers victory.
As Bryant struggled with accuracy and game-to-game sustainability — he sat out six of the previous 12 for rest reasons — James was watching.
Bryant provided perspective from afar on aging in the NBA.
"You prepare every day like it's your last," James said. "You've got to be smart about it. Your body will let you know when it needs time."
James, who turned 30 a few weeks ago, had 36 points, five rebounds and five assists Thursday as the Cavaliers (20-20) broke a six-game losing streak.
He said he wasn't recruited by Bryant to join the Lakers as a free agent last summer but still added some accolades.
"I'm a huge Kobe fan. I love the way he approaches the game. It's great having him in the league," he said. "Last year it wasn't as great, just not having him out there. He's a big part of what we all do."
Scott has known Bryant since the fresh-faced teenager showed up in Honolulu for training camp in 1996. He has seen the outbursts over the years, born of a desire to win more NBA championships than can be counted on one hand, and he senses a new Bryant — a humbled one.
"I think he's dealt with it extremely well. I think he understands he's still a hell of a basketball player, but he's not what he used to be," Scott said. "He can't play 40 minutes a night. He can't play four out of five nights.
"The maturation of Kobe Bryant is starting to understand who he is, but he also wants to play and go out on a high note. He doesn't want to limp out. That's one of the main reasons we're doing what we're doing right now."
True to Scott's word, Bryant didn't play more than 32 minutes Thursday, his in-game ceiling the rest of the season. And he won't be with the team Friday in Utah for the second night of a back-to-back.
"Yeah, I heard the fans," Scott said of "We want Kobe." "I wanted to say, 'I want him too.' I know how much he means to us but I also know that in the long run it's going to be the best thing for us."
Kevin Love, a potential free agent in July, had 17 points and seven rebounds for Cleveland. Kyrie Irving added 22 points.
Jordan Hill had 20 points for the Lakers.