Sentiment is in ample supply in Toronto this weekend. Memories, tributes and farewells. Kobe Bryant will feature in the NBA All Star Game for the final time. 18 appearances in the annual stellar showpiece signal a career well done.
With little prospect of retiring off one last run into the Playoffs with the ailing Los Angeles Lakers, Sunday night’s contest will mark one of the high points of Bryant’s farewell tour.
Which means the 37-year-old is a good bet to take the MVP award for the fifth time – and to come out on the winning team with the Western Conference.
In this age of fan voting on the Internet, it was hardly a shock when the five-time NBA champion topped the ballot to determine the starters for the Game. And public support figures to be a factor once again when it comes to determining the most valuable among the riches on display.
Yet Bryant, after starting the season looking every bit his age, has come alive of late, averaging 25.2 points per game this month, over eight above his meagre seasonal level.
And with LeBron James sitting just two points adrift in the historical scoring rankings, he has the chance to extend his All Star record of 280 and retain top spot for at least one year more.
“You know the crowd’s going to want it to happen, certain players are going to want it to happen,” said long-time Lakers running mate Shaquille O’Neal. “If he can find his stroke and get it going a little bit, I can guarantee you he’s going to go for the MVP. It’s his last one, why not go out with a bang?”
Bryant will, however, also aim to go out with a win. And the West, victors in four of the last five editions, simply look stacked. Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson give the Golden State Warriors three players in an All-Star Game for the first time in 40 years. Chemistry helps.
Kevin Durant’s All Star Game scoring average of 26.0 points is the highest of all time. While Thunder team-mate Russell Westbrook was the MVP in 2015 in New York, playing like a man possessed.
The contest is rarely a blowout with no edition this decade decided by more than eight points, so it’s worth looking at the West on a handicap of no more than -3.5.
But for the individual honour on offer, expect the old man on show to take his best shot before taking his leave of the stage.
Best bet: Take Kobe Bryant for All Star Game MVP.