It was Christmas Day, 2007, and Grant Hill was granted an interesting gift from his coach. Mike D'Antoni told him to defend Kobe Bryant in front of a national TV audience at the Staples Center. Hill was in his first year with the Suns, and he had a decent day, scoring 14 points on 6-for-10 shooting.
Bryant -- then mostly guarded by Raja Bell, with help from Hill -- had 38 points and seven assists.
“In Phoenix, why the hell I was guarding him at 36, 37, I don’t know,” Hill told Sporting News. “It was one of those things where, of all the guys I had to guard at that time, he was by far the toughest.”
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For the final time in his 20-year career, Kobe Bryant will be on the floor in a Christmas Day matchup on Friday, with the Lakers facing the Clippers in the day’s nightcap. Hill, who is now an analyst with NBA TV (which is in the midst of showing 13 games in 13 nights running through January 2), said that Bryant’s competitive edge was one of the things that made his the toughest to guard, but said he’s liked that Bryant, since announcing his retirement at the end of November, has eased up a bit.
“I think he’s not only accepting that he has to retire, but he is accepting all of the respect and admiration from the public,” Hill said. “And he’s letting us in a little more. It’s almost jarring. Not long ago, they played Atlanta and I was working that night, the Hawks honored him. But afterwards, he carried on like a 30-minute press conference after the game. To hear Kobe just kind of go into stories and show his personality and be goofy a little bit, it’s almost uncomfortable because we’re not used to seeing that. It’s uncomfortable but it’s refreshing. I think a lot of people who watched him, whether they loved him or disliked him, I think they enjoy what they’re seeing from him.”
Over the course of their careers, Bryant and Hill faced each other 34 times, and Bryant managed to get the better of Hill, going 26-8 and averaging 26.7 points — though Hill, as a small forward, frequently didn’t guard Bryant. But when he did, it was never easy.
“Certain guys, even All-Stars, you can guard and you have a game plan,” Hill said. “You can think, ‘If I still with the game plan, I have a chance of making their life difficult and doing a good job.’ But with Kobe, he was so good, you could throw all the analytics out the window, you could forget trying to play against his tendencies and all of that. Because you could do everything right. You could be on him, you could guess right on what he was going to do, you could time it perfectly, everything. And you turn around, and the ball goes in. And you go, ‘Well, OK.’ ”
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Hill also suffered a devastating ankle injury and infection in