Bryant cheers up in return

Times Staff Writer

Another historic night at the Garden.

Kobe Bryant was back and the Boston Celtics remained suspended in a season that won’t end, the Lakers further differentiating themselves from their archaic rivals with a 111-98 victory Wednesday at TD Banknorth Garden.

Bryant returned from a one-game league suspension, amassed 43 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, and drove the Celtics to a franchise record-tying 13th consecutive loss.

The scene was almost surreal, with “Kobe” and “M-V-P” chants being yelled by more than a handful of fans late in the game. For the record, that would be a Laker getting cheered by a pro-Celtics crowd.


Long live the rivalry?

“It’s the most amazing feat in basketball that won’t ever show up in the record books,” longtime Lakers trainer Gary Vitti said incredulously. “Boston fans yelled M-V-P for our guy.”

It has been 23 years since Vitti joined the Lakers and 21 since the Celtics won an NBA championship. The Lakers, meanwhile, ended a three-game losing streak and moved to 1-1 on an eight-game trip, their longest in 18 years.

They also managed to beat back this major annoyance of not being able to win against losing teams, which the Celtics (12-33) definitely qualify as.

In the span of a day, Bryant went from seething to smiling, all but forgetting that the league suspended him before Tuesday’s loss to New York for striking San Antonio guard Manu Ginobili in the face Sunday.

He was still morose before the game, talking in a low voice with reporters as he slipped into his uniform. It could best be described as a humorless chat, particularly the description of his feelings as he watched the Lakers lose Tuesday from his room at the team hotel in Manhattan.

“Terrible, terrible, terrible,” he said. “I felt like a kid that was grounded, man. Couldn’t go outside and play on the swings, know what I mean? It was terrible.”

Then he went out Wednesday, made 13 of 25 shots and buried any chances of a Celtics comeback with 10 points in the final 4:04 of the fourth quarter. Safe to say he didn’t feel grounded any longer.


“It felt like I was finally able to run out on the yard, just run a little wild, just have a good time,” he said, smiling. “That’s what I told the guys before we went out there -- ‘It’s a long road trip, but let’s have fun.’ We tend to get a little too serious on these road trips, kind of forget about how much fun the game is.”

Before Bryant started enjoying himself, and the edge of the suspension started wearing off, Coach Phil Jackson was concerned that Bryant would stray early.

“My interest is to not let him go off and get too wacky out there in case he’s got retribution in mind,” Jackson said beforehand. “We’ll try and keep his emotions corralled in this game so that he puts the best effort forth.”

Then the opposite happened. Jackson actually found himself telling Bryant he wasn’t assertive enough.


“I thought he was very passive to start the game,” Jackson said. “In fact, I had to encourage him to take open shots. He was trying to get his teammates involved, not get a focus on him.”

Bryant had 16 points at halftime. He came out with 15 in the third quarter, including a long three-pointer at the buzzer, as the Lakers turned an eight-point halftime lead into 83-73 after three.

The Celtics cut it to seven midway through the fourth quarter before Bryant took over.

He made a 17-foot fadeaway as the shot clock wound down near the four-minute mark. Then a three-pointer. Then came a double-clutch reverse dunk. Another three-pointer.


The cheers from select parts of the crowd came filtering down right around that time.

“I really appreciate it,” Bryant said.

And with that, the Lakers could move toward another set of back-to-back games. They play Indiana on Friday and then Washington on Saturday, a rematch of one of Bryant’s less--memorable games this season.

Said Jackson: “We still have a busy, busy week.”