There would be oohs and ahs, Alvin Gentry warned his team. There would be loud cheers. There would be a buzz in the Smoothie King Center on Thursday, and it wouldn’t be for his Pelicans.
Kobe Bryant was in town, and he was the show.
And the fans who turned out to see him went home happy.
Bryant scored 27 points and sealed the game with late heroics as the Lakers — the worst team in the Western Conference — beat the Pelicans for the second time this season, 99-96.
“The problem with us is when we finally made a run, it was just to get back even. It wasn’t to create separation,” Gentry said. “We make a good run, and now all of the sudden we’re even. Well, when that happens, the Kobe factor becomes a possibility, and that’s exactly what happened.”
Bryant, who will retire at the end of this, his 20th NBA season, was the star of the pregame — his introduction in the starting lineup drew an ovation nearly as loud as Anthony Davis’ — and the main attraction all night.
Fans packed the lower level well before the game to watch Bryant shoot. Many wore some variation of his jersey — his current Lakers No. 24, his old Los Angeles No. 8, home and road versions of his Lower Merion High School No. 33 — or T-shirts celebrating him. They carried signs reading, “Congrats Kobe!” and “Thank You For 20 Great Seasons Kobe.”
“It makes me feel great,” Bryant said. “It makes me feel like all the hard work I put in through the years was worth it. Seeing the fans’ reaction and their signs and getting the chance to talk to them — I even met a kid courtside today and his name was Kobe.”
Bryant soaked in the pregame scene, but he was at his best at night’s end.
Trailing by as many as 12 points in the fourth quarter, Anthony Davis, who finished with 39 points and 12 rebounds, and Bryce Dejean-Jones, who scored 17, sparked a 6-0 fourth-quarter run that cut Los Angeles’ lead to 85-79 on Davis’ dunk with 7:34 to play.
But with 6:22 remaining, Davis went 0 for 2 at the free-throw line, and Bryant answered with a 3-pointer at the 6:08 mark that put the Lakers back in front 88-79.
Another Bryant 3 with 5:33 remaining stretched the lead to 91-79.
The Pelicans would force him to save the day again.
Davis had a chance to cut the lead to five with 3:03 to play, but he missed a breakway dunk attempt, losing control of the ball on the way to the rim. Still, New Orleans chipped away, and dunks on back-to-back trips by Anderson and Davis cut the Laker lead to 95-92 with 1:15 to play.
But Bryant’s deep right-wing 3-pointer with 58.4 seconds to play stretched the lead back to six.
“If not Michael (Jordan), he’s probably hit the most big shots ever,” Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday said.
But Bryant hadn’t buried the Pelicans yet.
A pair of Dejean-Jones free throws cut it back to 98-96 with 21.6 to play. New Orleans — with a foul to give — waited until a little more than six seconds remained to start fouling.
Bryant couldn’t ice the game — he made one of two throws with 5.9 to play to put the Lakers in front 99-96 — but Holiday’s 3-pointer at the buzzer was offline.
It was the capper to a strong night for Bryant, who was 10 for 24 from the floor and had a season-high 12 rebounds. The Lakers have one trip remaining to New Orleans, but if Thursday was Bryant’s last game at the Smoothie King Center, he left a lasting impression with his late-game heroics.
And a familiar one.
“He’s been doing it for 20 years…,” Davis said. “He’s been doing it his whole career.”
If it’s up to Bryant, he’ll do it one more time when the Lakers visit in the season’s final week.
“It’s really special to have played in front of this crowd tonight,” Bryant said. “I’m looking forward to being able to come back here and play one last time. I had some pretty good games in this building. Tonight I felt like I had to exorcise my demons a little bit, because I kept thinking about the last time I was here and I tore my shoulder. I (wanted) to get back out on this court and play well.”