Nearly eight months after Kobe Bryant limped off the Lakers' home court with a torn Achilles tendon and a career in doubt, he struggled to keep his composure when he finally stepped back onto the same hardwood.
And though his comeback night didn't quite go to script, Bryant couldn't help reflecting on the work necessary to get back on that court — and all the months of steady labor ahead to reclaim his game.
Bryant had nine points and eight rebounds in his season debut, but Amir Johnson scored a career-high 32 points in the trade-depleted Toronto Raptors' 106-94 victory over Los Angeles on Sunday night.
Bryant began his 18th NBA season by going 2 for 9 with four assists and eight turnovers in 28 minutes. The fourth-leading scorer in NBA history got hurt April 12 and persevered through several months of rehabilitation to return for Los Angeles' 20th game of the new season, only to struggle with his shot, his timing and his new teammates.
"My rhythm is completely out of sync," Bryant said. "But this is a start, and I guess a start is good."
Nick Young scored 19 points for the Lakers, who went 10-9 without Bryant this season, forging a winning record without the five-time NBA champion and with little help from fellow injured MVP Steve Nash.
Adoring fans cheered Kobe's every move and forgave every misstep, but Bryant couldn't rally the Lakers late despite another huge game by Los Angeles' reserves. Bryant was touched by the fans' reception and his teammates' encouragement, although his ruthless competitive nature chafed against his natural emotions before the opening tip.
"You try to control it as much as you can, but you can't help thinking about the hard work," Bryant said. "You try to put it to the side as much as possible and do your work. ... It makes you appreciate the game, this franchise and this city, and all we've been through."
The Lakers never led, and Toronto improbably snapped its five-game losing streak despite playing without forward Rudy Gay, who is expected to be traded to Sacramento on Monday as the centerpiece of an apparent seven-player deal.
Kyle Lowry had 23 points and eight assists, and DeMar DeRozan added 10 of his 26 points in the final 4:35 of the Raptors' first road win over the Lakers in 11 tries since Dec. 28, 2001.
"(Bryant) was a little rusty, and you could tell because a lot of his shots were short," said DeRozan, who grew up in Los Angeles watching Kobe. "We were going against him his first game back, but he's going to get it going again and he'll be back to the old Kobe."
The Raptors had 11 players available after holding out Gay, center Aaron Gray and forward Quincy Acy, all set to head to the Kings in exchange for Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Chuck Hayes.
That turned out to be plenty, thanks to two Los Angeles natives. Johnson, who attended nearby Westchester High School, went 14 for 17 and surpassed his previous career high early in the third quarter. Johnson didn't take a shot in the fourth, but USC product DeRozan and Lowry held off the Lakers.
"We knew we were down because half our team got traded, so our mindset was just to go out there and play hard and win this game," Johnson said. "It was real emotional. It happened to us last year in Atlanta, too. We talked to those guys, and Rudy was still at the hotel, so we called him in and told him how much we all appreciated what they did for this team and the city."
The building had the buzz of a playoff game before the opening tip, with thousands of fans training cameras on Bryant during opening warmups. The building erupted in loud applause at every mention of Kobe, who was introduced last in the starting lineup to the thunderous strains of "The Imperial March" — Darth Vader's theme from "Star Wars."
The crowd roared again the first time Bryant touched the ball, and he found Robert Sacre underneath the hoop for an assist on Los Angeles' first possession. With his wife, Vanessa, and two daughters sitting courtside, Bryant hit a free throw for his first point in the second quarter, followed shortly by an 8-foot, double-pump, left-handed bank shot for his first field goal.
Bryant added a signature 22-foot face-up jumper later in the period, but also showed clear signs of rust and unfamiliarity with his new teammates.
"We're going to have to carry Kobe a little bit, because of course he's not 100 percent, not in game shape," said Xavier Henry, who scored 17 points. "It's going to be fun. It's a long year, and he's just getting back."
NOTES: The officials allowed Toronto C Jonas Valanciunas to make two free throws out of a timeout late in the first quarter, but belatedly realized Lowry was supposed to take the shots. They wiped the two points off the board and put Lowry back at the line, where he made both shots anyway. ... Terrence Ross banked in a shot from beyond half-court at the first-quarter buzzer to put Toronto up 30-20.