CLEVELAND -- Just like on Christmas Day, the Cavs beat the Lakers on Thursday night.
But this was different.
The game was there for the taking, but the Lakers didn't seize the day. Tied with a minute to go, Cleveland did everything right down the stretch and LA didn't. Kobe Bryant scored 31 points to lead the Lakers, and became the youngest player ever to reach the 25,000 point plateau. LeBron James finished with 37 to lead the Cavs. After the Lakers swept the Cavs a year ago, Cleveland has now returned the favor.
The question everybody seems to ask when the Lakers come to Ohio lately is this: Who's the best player in the NBA, LeBron or Kobe?
Everyone seems to have an opinion, and just like Thursday's game, those opinions have tilted towards LeBron.
Earlier this week, Lakers legend Jerry West was our featured guest at Lunch with a Legend, and he cast a surprising vote.
"Kobe isn't very happy with me right now," West said. "Because I said recently that LeBron has passed him as the best player in the league. But that's OK ... I think it's good for people to give honest opinions. "
LeBron James scored 37 points to Kobe Bryant's 31.
Bill Simmons, the Sports Guy from www.espn.com, was more direct in a column he wrote this week:
"Know this: The Kobe-LeBron argument is dead. It's over. LeBron James is the best basketball player alive. Whoever gets him this summer will treat their fans to 50-55 appointment home games for the next five seasons (including playoffs). If you were ever fortunate enough to have season tickets for a memorable athlete in his prime -- Gretzky, Montana, Jordan, Magic, Bird, Pedro, Koufax, whomever -- then you know exactly what this means. It's not just about the winning. It's about heading to the stadium or the park feeling like you won the lottery. It's about the buzz in the crowd, the way everyone seems like they spent just a little more time getting ready."
I'll try to make an argument for Kobe, and it won't be easy after what happened on Thursday. Kobe has at least one thing that LeBron doesn't.
His sense of the moment.
Nobody has that sense like Kobe. Nobody in any sport has the consistent ability to deliver with the game on the line like he does, with the possible exception of Tiger Woods (and it remains to be seen if he can sustain it after everything he's going through). I've seen it for years, and would further argue that everything Simmons wrote about LeBron has applied to Kobe for ten years and still does. I've been fortunate enough to watch him for his entire career and he not only gives the building a buzz, but you get the feeling that could individually treat you a historic night. As for Bill's contention that LeBron "spent just a little more time getting ready," I've watched Kobe be the first guy in the building more than a hundred times. Sometimes he gets to the arena at 3:30 for a 7:30 game.
Before the game on Thursday, I asked LeBron if he agreed that it's a two-horse race between him and Kobe for the title of best player alive, and who he feels is better.
"I don't get into that stuff&I'll let others decide who the best player is," James said. "But I still watch Kobe a lot, and I still learn things from him that I can use in my game, just like I did growing up."
I think that answer lends itself to my argument. Kobe, at age 31, is a complete player with a complete game. LeBron, at 25, is still learning&and the sky is the limit. But there has to be a reason Kobe has four rings and LeBron doesn't have one yet.
I think it was best summed up by Sam Amico, the Cleveland beat writer for www.nba.com . When I asked Amico to weigh-in on the best player debate, he brought up something simple, yet fascinating.
"Right now, I would take Kobe," Amico said. "LeBron said once that he would never get to where Kobe is in the sense that Kobe not only wants to win, he wants everybody on the other team dead. LeBron wants to win, but not at the expense of everybody else. I think that's a big reason why Kobe has four rings. He has that killer instinct."
At this stage of their careers, LeBron is bigger, stronger, faster and jumps higher than Kobe. He might win a game of one on one if they played today. But if you gave me one guy to win a title this season, I'll take the guy with the rings.
I know I'm in the minority (especially after Thursday night). This may be the last year I can make the case. But until LeBron wins the big one, I'm sticking with Kobe.
John Ireland hosts the "Mason & Ireland" show on ESPN Radio 710 in Los Angeles.