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After a moving ceremony to honor the life and death of Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and the seven others who died in Sunday’s tragic helicopter crash, Lillard put on a show, scoring 48 points and adding 10 assists and nine rebounds to lead his team to a 127-119 victory.
“[With Bryant] being arguably the toughest competitor to ever play the game, I felt like it was only right for us to pay our respect pregame and then go out there and honor him by competing at a higher level,” Lillard said.
Teams have honored Bryant all week with moving, emotional outpourings, but the real tributes are Mamba sightings everywhere.
Trae Young scored 39 points with 18 assists as the Atlanta Hawks upset the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday. That’s after Young dropped 45 points Sunday while wearing a No. 8 jersey.
Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton exploded for a career-high 51 points Tuesday, a game in which Bradley Beal nearly matched him with 47 for the Washington Wizards. Eric Gordon scored 50 for the Houston Rockets, while Buddy Hield had 42 for the Sacramento Kings.
Players are showing out, and none more than Lillard, who has scored 50, 36 and now 48—an average of 48.4—since Sunday’s tragic news.
“Do you think you’re playing the best ball [of your career] right now?” a reporter asked after the game.
“Yeah, I do,” Lillard answered plainly.
Remind you of anyone?
Los Angeles has been in mourning since Sunday, and while that grief has extended well beyond the city’s borders, the heart of the tragedy is here at home. L.A. Live was packed with far more than the 19,912 souls filling the seats at Staples Center. Street vendors everywhere, offering flowers, T-shirts, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, whatever will sell. Shrines scattered about with photos, personal messages, candles and flowers.
Inside the arena, emotions ran high. Hugs were plentiful, as were tears. Usher, Boyz II Men and cellist Ben Hong moved the crowd with music. The Lakers huddled together. Gigi Bryant’s Mamba teammates stood courtside during the ceremony. Trevor Ariza, a former championship teammate of Bryant with the Lakers but now with the Blazers, openly wept.
So too did LeBron James, who delivered a moving eulogy.
“I want to continue along with my teammates, to continue his legacy, not only for this year, but for as long as we can play the game of basketball that we love, because that’s what Kobe Bryant would want. So in the words of Kobe Bryant, ‘Mamba out.’ But in the words of us, ‘Not forgotten.’ Live on, brother.”
That’s everything Lakers fans need to hear from James. To some, he’s considered Bryant’s heir apparent and the franchise’s best hope at getting another title.
But Bryant’s messages of hard work, striving for greatness and dominating your opponent is not limited to the purple and gold. He has already inspired a generation of players—such as Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook—who modeled their approach to the game after Bryant’s.
“All we wanted to do was win so we can be on Kobe’s level,” Wade said on a TNT special honoring Bryant. “Everyone wants to put us against him, but we were just trying to make him proud of us.”
That’s the same Wade who broke Bryant’s nose during the 2012 All-Star Game, but we wouldn’t have gotten the black-masked Mamba without Wade’s hyper-competitiveness in an exhibition game.
Now the next generation is following suit.
Like Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker hitting Dallas Mavericks forward Justin Jackson with multiple jab steps followed by a beautiful step-back jumper. That level of execution comes only after hours of practice and focus on the details, the footwork. That’s tribute.
So too was Kyrie Irving‘s 54 points on just 23 shot attempts to lead the Brooklyn Nets to a win over the Chicago Bulls on Friday.
Mamba mentality is a way of life, a movement.
Those impacted by Bryant’s death need to heal. The moving ceremonial tributes may help bring some level of closure, but the real tribute to Bryant lies with the generations that follows. Those who embody the mentality, who pour themselves into the love of the game and do the work.
Meanwhile, the Lakers are in good hands with James, an icon in his own right and a multiple-time NBA champion. The franchise will be in the championship conversation, but the path won’t be easy, and some of that is on Bryant for inspiring so many players to reach their full potential.
Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.