Kobe Bryant is about to mark another memory off on his long list of goodbyes as he suits up for his Christmas swan song.
Saying hello to the Los Angeles Lakers for the first time this season should be enough to put the scuffling Clippers in the holiday spirit.
A suddenly resurgent Bryant will play for the 16th and final time on Christmas Day as the Clippers look to snap out of a funk with an eighth straight victory over their Staples Center co-tenants.
For an 11-game stretch from Nov. 22-Dec. 11 that included the announcement that this season would be his last, it looked as if Bryant and the Lakers (5-24) would have been better off had that retirement taken place immediately. He shot 29.4 percent and averaged 15.5 points as Los Angeles went 1-10.
He’s shown a few signs of his old self over the last five, averaging 23.8 points and shooting 46.2 percent while the Lakers have won twice. But within that recent stretch, including a game Bryant sat out to rest, has been the same old reality check: four losses by a combined 124 points.
“Listen, you have to be realistic about what we’re facing and where we are right now as a team and as an organization,” Bryant said after Wednesday’s 120-85 loss to Oklahoma City. “I mean, you can train a cat to bark all you want, but the damn cat’s not going to bark. So there’s no sense in yelling at it.”
Now Bryant turns his attention to one final Christmas showcase, a stage that typically hasn’t gone well for him. He’s averaged 27.4 points in his 14 starts on Dec. 25, but the Lakers are 5-9. Bryant also played five minutes off the bench on Christmas as a rookie in 1996.
“I feel really honored, having played several games on Christmas and being in so many households at a very special time,” Bryant said. “It’s been a wonderful experience, and I’m looking forward to playing this last one.”
He hasn’t been healthy for the past two, missing losses to Chicago and Miami. The most recent he played was a more vintage 34-point effort in a 2012 win over New York.
The Clippers (16-13) have played on Christmas for the past four years, winning three times. Two of those victories came against Golden State, including a 100-86 final last season that wound up being a season-low point total for the NBA champions.
Playing up to the level of their competition is something the Clippers have yet to do this season. They enter this one having lost three straight to Western Conference contenders, the latest Monday’s 100-99 heartbreaker against Oklahoma City.
The Clippers either led or were tied for almost all of a 42-minute stretch before Russell Westbrook‘s go-ahead 3 with 48 seconds left.
“The great teams are able to bring it every night, no matter who they are playing against,” Chris Paul said. “That’s why the Spurs, Warriors, those types of teams have the records they do. We have had different lineups every night and different guys in and out, but that is part of fielding a great team.”
Josh Smith was benched against the Thunder while Austin Rivers (ankle) and Paul Pierce didn’t play. On the Lakers’ side, Julius Randle was set to see a foot specialist after missing Wednesday’s loss with an ankle injury, but he’s probable.
This rivalry hasn’t been much of one for a while. The Clippers have won seven straight in the series by an average of 24.6 as Blake Griffin has put up 26.7 points per game and shot 61.3 percent.
“You talk about two teams that are desperate right now, for different reasons,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said. “Their expectations are to try to win a championship this year. I’m pretty sure they’re not going to be very happy (Friday).
“They would love nothing more than to beat us by 40.”