BOSTON -- Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens was conducting his postgame news conference about 10 minutes after the final buzzer of his team's head-shaking 112-104 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night, and the same chants of "Ko-be Br-yant" that often boomed through TD Garden could be heard again as joyous Lakers fans -- and maybe those simply swept up in the hype surrounding Bryant's final visit to Boston -- exited the arena.
For some Celtics fans, particularly those watching one of the team's rougher defensive efforts of the season, the idea that Kobe Bryant's name would be chanted in Boston seemed blasphemous. This is a hated archrival, a man who prevented banner No. 18 from going to the rafters in 2010. How could Boston fans possibly be chanting his name at the end of a disheartening loss in which a five-win team snapped Boston's season-best four-game winning streak?
"I think, typically, [the fans] would never do that," said Evan Turner, who tried to singlehandedly will Boston back by scoring 11 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter. "But I mean it just shows how much respect the league and fans actually have for the great career this guy put together. He hit some big shots down the stretch and I think eventually, in a certain way, you kinda lose sight in the bravado of, 'This is Boston.' They're saying, 'I appreciate what a legend did' to a certain extent, you know?"
The Celtics were far more upset with their own play than the way Bryant was received inside the Garden. The vocal swarm of purple-and-yellow-clad Lakers fans that clustered the lower bowl certainly aided the chants for Bryant, in much the same way he was serenaded with "MVP!" chants during a 43-point effort in January 2007, a season in which Boston lost a franchise record 18 straight games and won only 24 overall.
And yet it was still jarring for Bryant to command this arena. It made some sense at the start of the game, when a goosebumps-inspiring introduction left the crowd chanting "Ko-be!" after he was the Lakers' final player announced. The crowd buzzed as Bryant, staring down at the parquet floor, was spotlighted on the JumboTron before his introduction. Public-address announcer Eddie Palladino let the moment breath just enough that most Celtics fans turned initial grumbles into cheers and a brief "Ko-be!" chant after he patted his heart and waved to the crowd.
But even Bryant loved it when Celtics fans booed him the instant he touched the ball at the start of the game.
"It felt great to get booed. It was like the recognition at the top of the game, and then as soon as I touched the ball they booed. I was like, 'Oh, I'm home,' " Bryant said.
An odd tension grew as Bryant missed his first eight shots, but when he went vintage Kobe with a strong drive to the rim and muscled home a layup with 3:57 to play in the first half, the crowd erupted. The fans were even louder when he scored again soon after.
But it was nothing compared to the constant chants that came later in the game, ones that couldn't be drowned out by "Let's Go, Celtics" chants. Boston fans never even got a familiar, "Beat L.A.!" chant to start, even as the Celtics rallied from as much as 14 points down to close to 104-102 with under two minutes to play. Old friend Brandon Bass bullied his way into the paint and Jae Crowder shuffled over to help David Lee. With Crowder detached, Bryant faded a couple of steps beyond the 3-point arc, received a jump pass from Bass, and calmly canned the 3-pointer as Crowder rushed out to contest.
The "Ko-be" chants boomed louder than ever and Bryant thumped his heart in appreciation as the Celtics scrambled for a 20-second timeout.
"Honestly, if I could cheer for [the Boston fans] I would," Bryant said. "I don't think the fans here really understand how much they drove me. From the signing of the songs, the shaking of the bus going back to the hotel, that stuff really stuck with me [during the 2008 Finals]. It drove me to, like, maniacal proportions. So I don't think they really understand how much they meant to my career."
After smothering Bryant with kindness in the days leading up to Wednesday's visit, the Celtics seemed unperturbed by the hero's reception he received during his last trip to the Garden.
"It should be like that," Avery Bradley said. "Everywhere he goes, everyone respects what he does and what he did."
Crowder said he didn't have a problem with the crowd celebrating Bryant, suggesting some similarity to how Boston fans cheered Kevin Garnett's final visit earlier this month.
"I think the loss is more disappointing," Crowder said.
Crowder added later, "It doesn't bother me when the other team has a crowd on our home court. It's a part of it. The Lakers have good traditions just like the Boston Celtics organization, so it's two good organizations going at it. It's a great rivalry and I really don't mind it."
Like his players, Stevens said he liked the rivalry atmosphere but admitted he's so focused on the game that he blocks out much of the noise. He hammered that home by powering through his news conference while those Bryant chants continued.
"I love our fans. Spectacular atmosphere," Stevens said. "I have to admit that I'm pretty focused on what's going on in the game, so I don't hear all the music and I don't pay a ton of attention other than I can feel the vibe in the arena when big moments happen and certainly [Bryant] made a lot of big moments happen. And we didn't. That's the disappointing thing from my standpoint. He's a great player. We have to play better."