Someone actually tried to defend Kobe Bryant in his final All-Star game, refusing to step aside and yield one last magical moment. Well, sort of.
LeBron James lightheartedly slapped the court as Bryant dribbled on the perimeter in the second quarter, commencing a one-on-one, bring-it-on battle that ended with Bryant's turnaround jumper bouncing off the front of the rim. It also resulted in smiles from both players.
"When you get that opportunity versus a great man," James said, "you just have fun with it."
Playfulness was as plentiful as points during the NBA's highest-scoring All-Star game Sunday at the Air Canada Centre, the West's 196-173 victory making Bryant a winner even though he was far from the best player on the court.
The Lakers star finished with 10 points on four-for-11 shooting to go with seven assists and six rebounds in 26 minutes. He checked out for the last time with 1 minute 6 seconds left, pausing to hug his teammates and wave to the fans before tapping his heart, saluting the crowd and clapping his hands high above his head.
"I had a blast playing with those guys," Bryant said of his teammates, "laughing and joking with them on the bench."
This was Bryant's 15th All-Star game, and the 20-year NBA veteran finished with a record-tying four All-Star most-valuable-player awards and 290 points, the latter figure ranking second all-time after James' 13 points allowed him to overtake Bryant on the scoring list.
Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook became the first player to be selected MVP outright in back-to-back seasons after collecting 31 points, eight rebounds, five assists and five steals for the West. Indiana's Paul George scored 41 points for the East, one short of Wilt Chamberlain's All-Star game record.
All of the defensive battles involving Bryant were warmhearted. Clippers guard Chris Paul's 7-year-old son got the best of Bryant in warmups before the second half, his active hands swiping the ball as Bryant dribbled low to the floor.
"He probably doesn't realize it now, because he's kind of sort of used to seeing Kobe and stuff like that," Paul said of the moment involving his son, "but when he gets a little older, it'll probably hit him a little bit."
Bryant stepped in front of Pau Gasol, his former Lakers teammate, in the fourth quarter, on a play that ended in Gasol's missed turnaround jumper. Then Bryant backed down Gasol and missed his own turnaround jumper.
"I got a chance to stop Pau in the post, redeem myself from what he did to me when Chicago came to town," Bryant said. "But all those things are just fun. I had a great time. I had a great, great time."
Bryant even paid homage of sorts to Lakers great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the third quarter with a baseline skyhook. It didn't go so well, the ball flying all the way over the rim.
Bryant flung freebies into the stands when he first appeared for warmups, accompanied for a stretch by his oldest daughter. Predictably, he was the last player introduced before the game, with a lengthy pause punctuated by chants of "Kobe!" from the crowd.
Two video tributes were shown, one featuring career highlights and another including footage narrated by Bryant and praise from his basketball peers.
There were also brief addresses by Bryant and Lakers legend Magic Johnson, who told the crowd, "There will never be another Kobe Bryant."
Bryant ended his address by saying, "Now I have to go get loose." He won an awkwardly contested jump ball against James and registered his first statistic on an assist to San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard.
Early in the game it was vintage Bryant . . . as in 2016.
His first shot was a three-point attempt off the back of the rim. He made only one of two free throws after being fouled on a driving layup. He even needed some luck on his first basket, which fell through after circling the rim five times.
Ultimately, it was Bryant's presence, and not his performance, that mattered to those around him.
"To see him now, it's like the passing of a generation," said San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich, who guided the West. "He's been such an iconic figure for so long, and he passes it on to that other group of young guys that you saw out there tonight."