Now the defending champions, the Miami Heat, were coming to Los Angeles, dragging their 9-9 road record and having lost three of their last four.
And a statement was made, too, just not the kind the Lakers had in mind. The Heat not only scored the game's last nine points on Thursday to win 99-90, LeBron James put on the kind of show that probably too often is taken for granted.
The kind only the best player in basketball can.
Certainly there are those understandably in awe of the Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant, the LA Clippers guard Chris Paul, the Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose, the Lakers guard Bryant and the Heat's Dwyane Wade.
But the best of the best remains James, the most complete, yet unique player in the game. And at 28, still very much in his prime.
In a game with Bryant, Howard and Wade on the same floor, it was James who dominated, who was clearly the superior player. He scored 39 points while making 17 of 25 shots, adding eight assists, seven rebounds and three steals.
In the final minutes, he switched defensively on Bryant. He repeatedly flew by the forward Metta World Peace, a tough and strong defender, who was simply no match for the powerful James.
"He's one of the best we've ever seen," said Bryant. "Metta was up for the challenge. But LeBron made some tough shots."
After a first, sometimes chaotic season with the Heat, James now seems comfortable and settled in Miami. He led the Heat to the NBA title last season and then was the best player on the US gold-medal winning team at the Olympics.
This season he is averaging 26.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.7 steals and shooting 55.1 per cent (tops for any player not a centre or power forward).
James came into the NBA in 2003 as perhaps the most anticipated high school player ever. It seemed nearly impossible he could live up to the expectations. Yet he has, and surpassed what was thought to be his talent ceiling.
He developed an outside shot to complement his powerful drives to the basket. He is both uncommonly strong, a terrific leaper and fast, but has developed a commanding hunger to excel.
"He knows how to put the pressure on the defence as well," said the Laker Antawn Jamison, a former teammate of James in Cleveland. "During that one stretch in the third quarter going into the fourth, he took over the game and made it look easy."
Just making another statement.
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