CLEVELAND — When it was over, they hugged.
Kyrie Irving and Kobe Bryant gave 19,172 fans what they came to see Tuesday night, both putting up monster numbers and numerous spectacular plays before Irving’s Cavaliers emerged with a 100-94 victory over the struggling Los Angeles Lakers.
“He just loves the game of basketball,” Cavs coach Byron Scott said of Irving, back after missing 11 games with a fractured left index finger. “He loves the competition. He likes being put in that position where he has to deliver.”
He did. In his first game in more than three weeks, the 20-year-old Irving finished with 28 points on 11-for-21 shooting, six rebounds and a season-high 11 assists in 39 minutes.
Seventeenth-year pro Bryant, who has a $1 million bet on the table with Irving for a game of one-on-one, had 42 points on 16-for-28 shooting in 41 minutes.
“Kobe’s going to do what he does,” Irving said. “You just try to compete for 48 minutes.”
The most memorable sequence between the two came midway through the third period, when Irving had the ball and his teammates spread the floor, leaving the 6-foot-3, 191-pounder to go one-on-one with the 6-6 Bryant.
As the crowd rose to its feet, Irving worked his way into the key and pump-faked, but never shook Bryant and ended up getting his shot swatted, much to the delight of the Lakers bench.
“It reminded me of when Allen Iverson was going against Michael Jordan,” Irving said. “The whole crowd sat up. I got my shot blocked, but it was still a memorable moment for me.”
The play woke up the Lakers (9-13), who trailed by 16 early in the third quarter, but it didn’t prevent an aging team playing without Pau Gasol (tendinitis in knees), Steve Nash (leg fracture) and Steve Blake (abdominal surgery) from losing for the seventh time in its last 10 games.
Dwight Howard had 19 points and 20 rebounds for the Lakers, but was just 13-for-22 at the line. Howard attempted three shots in the second half and rarely touched the ball in the fourth quarter.
Metta World Peace added 13 points and nine boards for the Lakers, but the other six players who saw action combined for 20 points on 7-for-26 shooting in 123 minutes.
“This is the most challenging stretch I’ve had during my 17 years,” Bryant said. “It’s baffling.”
By contrast, the Cavs (5-17) halted a five-game losing streak and won for just the third time in their last 18 games because shooting guard C.J. Miles, making his first start of the season, matched Irving with 28 points and made 5-of-10 3-pointers.
Cleveland, whose bench produced just six points on 2-for-15 shooting in 55 minutes, also got 20 points, nine boards and five assists from Anderson Varejao, 17 points from Alonzo Gee and 10 rebounds from Tristan Thompson.
Though they only went head-to-head on occasion, the real story of the night was Irving and Bryant, a meeting that came to a head in that brief third-quarter sequence that will be shown over and over on SportsCenter.
“Defensively, I tried to take a stand,” Bryant said. “But he’s a fantastic player. Fantastic.”
Irving had more than his share of moments.
Twice in the first half, he hit long-range jumpers after juking Lakers defenders, almost twisting Chris Duhon into the ground on one occasion.
The Cavs seemingly on the verge of blowing the game, he hit a 3-pointer with 0.1 seconds left in the third period to give his team a 68-62 lead.
With a little over 7 minutes left in the fourth, he split the 6-11, 265-pound Howard and 6-9, 235-pound Jamison, drove and hit a left-handed layup while being fouled by Jamison, then converted the free throw to put Cleveland up 80-75.
After getting pump-faked off his feet and fouling Bryant on a three — the 34-year-old made all three free throws — and then watching the 30,000-point scorer hit a 3-pointer, Irving came right back with a 22-footer to put the Cavs back up five.
Bryant answered almost every time, but the veteran finally blinked, missing a three with 19 seconds to go and his team down five, effectively ending the game.
“Even though he finished with 42 points, I thought (Gee) did a terrific job of challenging every shot,” Scott said. “It really doesn’t matter who you put on that guy. He’s just that good.”
The Cavs led 54-39 at the half, in part because they were pretty good and in part because the Lakers were horrible.
Bryant was 7-for-10 from the field and had 16 points, but his teammates were a combined 7-for-25. The Lakers were also 8-for-18 from the foul line and had 13 turnovers, which led to a whopping 19 points for the Cavs.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” Bryant said. “We just have to really correct the issues. We can be two completely different teams in both halves. It’s like Jekyll and Hyde. I don’t know if we’re too old and it takes us too long to get started or what.
“I don’t know; I don’t know. It’s hard for me to put my finger on it.”
Both teams were terrible at the line, the Lakers hitting 25-of-40 (.625) and the Cavs going 15-for-26 (.577).
Cavs guard Daniel Gibson didn’t play in the second half due to a hyperextended right elbow, but said he expects to be able to play tonight in Indiana.
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or email@example.com.