All-Star Game was Kobe’s last stand

Kobe Bryant looked awfully “thirsty” Sunday evening. Yeah, his lips were parched. There was enough flour in the corners of his mouth to bake two cakes.

To Bryant, that All-Star MVP trophy must have looked like a six pack of Fiji water.

He quenched his thirst, dropping 37 points in the West’s exciting 148-143 victory, thwarting LeBron James’ remarkable triple-double.

The problem is, Kobe didn’t do anything about the Heat, the Spurs, the Celtics or the Mavericks. He also failed to erase the memory of L.A.’s horrifying loss to Cleveland and the beyond-troubling, three-game losing streak the Lakers carried into this All-Star break.

I might live to regret this statement, but I believe it nonetheless: Feb. 20, 2011, was Kobe’s last stand.

He’s done. It’s over. He’s no longer a leading man.

In the aftermath of his swan song, the five-time champion tried to act like he was comfortable surrendering his torch. I don’t buy it. He looked too thirsty.

“They should. They should,” Bryant responded when asked what he thought about all the young NBA stars receiving most of the attention and hype leading into the All-Star Game. “I’ve been there. You know what I mean? I had my time. It’s not about that for me at this point in my career. I’ve been there. It’s very important for the game to continue to have young stars emerge. It’s great for the league to get behind Blake (Griffin) and what he’s doing.

“It’s important for me to step aside.”

Please. Kobe Bryant has no interest in stepping aside for anyone. You don’t take a game-high 26 shots — one short of an All-Star Game record — when you’re stepping aside.

Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce stepped aside.

Kobe took out his frustrations. Kobe tried to remind everyone that if there’s a problem with the Lakers, it has little to do with No. 24. Kobe continued his just-below-the-surface feud with LeBron.

Don’t get confused. I’m glad Kobe did. I respect what he did. It was Michael “Corleone” Jordan-esque.

I’m not rooting against Kobe Bryant. I just think he’s done.

You could see it in the fourth quarter. He was exhausted. His ball-hogging and one-on-five mentality allowed the East to slash a healthy double-digit lead to two with little more than a minute to play.

“The fourth quarter, man, I had nothing left,” Bryant said.

That didn’t stop him from shooting — or trying to. He was thirsty. He could see LeBron James barreling in for the steal (MVP). That wasn’t happening. Not on Kobe’s watch. Not with a fourth All-Star Game MVP within his grasp. Not in the Staples Center with the crowd cheering loudest for The Poster Child.

“Tonight was just being around young players,” Bryant said, explaining his performance. “You want to know the influence of Blake? Look at all the dunks I had tonight. Just being around so many young players gave me so much energy to see them bouncing around and all that sort of stuff. It just re-energized me for the night.”

Good spin. But it’s still spin.

Losing to the Cavaliers gave Bryant energy. Being free of Ron Artest for an evening gave Bryant energy. Getting away from a team he knows can’t win it all liberated Kobe for a game.

The Lakers made a mistake this offseason by not shuffling the pieces around Kobe. The entire league has been invigorated by LeBron’s move to South Beach. The Lakers stood pat. Everyone can see it was a mistake now.

“Wow. You know what? That’s a Bikram yoga stretch,” Bryant said when I asked him if he was subtly suggesting the Lakers need to surround him with young talent. “You stretched the hell out  . . .  good job. I’m not even going to answer that. That’s just silly. Next.”

I bet Kobe would love for the Lakers to land Dwight Howard next year.

But not even D12 can save the Black Mamba.

It’s over.

Kobe is older than the calendar says (32). He joined the NBA at 18. He has played in nearly 200 playoff games. He has far more miles on his legs and knees than Michael Jordan (three years at North Carolina, a retirement) had at the same age.

Sunday was Kobe’s final great moment on the NBA’s big stage (playoffs, All-Star Game).

Next year, the Blake Show will be the main attraction at the Staples Center. The Heat, the Bulls, the Thunder and the Knicks will have the best teams with in-their-prime superstars. The Mavericks and the Celtics will still be title contenders.

Kobe? He’ll still be thirsty.