This is the finale of my 5 part series, covering Kobe’s greatest games. If you missed any of the first 4 parts, click the Kobe tag (or right here) to catch up!
When people think of Kobe wearing his #8 jersey, they think of either one of two Kobe’s: Kobe with the afro, playing together with Shaq winning championships, or Kobe with the tattoo, jacking up shots because he had no one else to pass to. And both versions of Kobe have equally great games that we all remember.
Afro Kobe’s finest moment was undoubtedly Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals. This game had a lot riding on it. We all now know Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers as three-time back-to-back-to-back champions, which in hindsight, suggests that winning just came easy to them. Actually living through the three seasons prior, where the Lakers would bow out to the eventual Western Conference champion (Utah twice, and San Antonio, respectively), losing to the Portland Trailblazers in 2000 would not have been such a shocker. The Lakers had already blown a 3-1 lead, and found themselves down 15 in the final quarter. So, as a fan, you were already letting the thought of, “Oh well, next year…” creep back into your mind for a fourth straight season.
In this game, and only missing a single minute of action, Shaq’s plucky young sidekick netted 25 points, snatched up 11 rebounds, swatted away 4 shots, all while still handing out 7 assists. His biggest assist obviously being the alley-oop he tossed to Shaq to put the Lakers up 6, capping off the historic fourth quarter comeback. This was the defining moment of Shaq and Kobe’s time together as teammates.
Most great players have a moment we remember them by. LeBron had The Block. Hakeem had The Dream Shake. Bird had The Steal. Magic had The Baby Hook. I always found it kind of fitting that the moment that defines both Shaq’s career and Kobe’s was one that they happened to share together. Their individual moment doesn’t exist without the other, and it’s especially poetic considering how their relationship would disintegrate in the seasons to follow.
Tattoo Kobe’s greatest game goes down as one of the greatest games of all time, and is an obvious favorite for this category. I’m talking, of course, about January 22, 2006, when he scored 81 points on the Toronto Raptors, the second highest scoring output from a single player in an NBA game. The game itself started innocent enough, with Kobe having only (haha, “only”…) 26 points at halftime and his team already down 14. He went on to pour 55 points in the second half, ending the game shooting 28-46 from the field, and 18-20 from the line. This is one of those games where everyone remembers exactly what they were doing at the time, or what they stopped doing to watch it once they realized what was happening. And when the game was over, we all still couldn’t believe it.
I had mentioned earlier that most great players have a moment we all remember them by. A moment that defines the kind of player they were. And I said “most” because some players actually have an entire game that we can point to, and use to define the player as well. A triple-double in Game 7 of the 1988 NBA Finals was how James Worthy got the nickname “Big Game” James. We all remember how mightily Isiah Thomas would fight in Game 6 of the same series, scoring 43 points (25 in the third quarter), all on one leg. There’s the photograph of Wilt Chamberlain holding a piece of paper with “100” scribbled on it, since his record setting 100 point game was not televised. Kobe Bryant already had a moment. By scoring 81 points against the Raptors, he also recorded that career defining game.
And why Kobe’s game will be remembered forever (or at least until Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry surpass it), even though it is 19 points short of Wilt Chamberlain’s record, is because of the manner in which it was produced. There is obviously no footage of The Big Dipper’s 100 point game, but we do know that he shot 38-63 from the field. We also know that he was a Goliath in his time. So, we can pretty much imagine him dunking and doing that finesse scoop shot he had, all in close proximity to the rim, since he was so much larger than his competition from New York. Over and over again. Now remember that he missed 25 shots. How? He was right under the basket! The most impressive part of this game becomes that he shot 28-32 from the foul line (Wilt was a career 51.1% free throw shooter. Ugh). But, even this becomes less impressive when you consider some accounts that towards the end of the game, Wilt’s Warriors teammates were fouling the Knicks to quickly get the ball back into their superstar’s hands, explaining how he got so many attempts in the first place.
Kobe’s game was different. First, he only earned 18 of his 81 points at the line, compared to Wilt’s 28. The remaining 72 points by Wilt (we imagine) would come from the paint, where the Knicks defense was helpless. Kobe scored 24 points from this range, but as a guard, it becomes much more impressive (even against the Raptors). Kobe couldn’t simply collect the ball and rise up over the much smaller defense to score. Sometimes Kobe would make a good cut to the basket. Other times, Kobe would score off of a Lakers fast break. And other times, he would break down his defender in isolation and snake his way into the paint.
This means that just over half (42) of Kobe’s 81 points came in the same way Wilt scored all 100 of his. Kobe would go on to tally up 21 more points from distance, making 7-13 from beyond the arc. The remaining 18 (9 shots) would be scored in isolation, in the triple threat or with his back to the basket, through a blend of contested pull-up, turnaround, and fadeaway jumpers.
The 81 point game perfectly encapsulates in four quarters the type of player Kobe Bryant was, which is exactly what a career defining game should do. James Worthy would come up “Big” when it mattered most. Isiah Thomas was as tough as a box of nails. Wilt Chamberlain was a man among boys. And Kobe Bryant was quite simply a fucking terror.
When I see that #8 jersey hanging from the rafters, those are the two games that replay in my mind: Afro Kobe crossing over Scottie Pippen to toss a lop up to Shaq, and Tattoo Kobe pointing to the sky, acknowledging the Staples Center crowd as he heads to the bench. The game that provided his moment, or the game that defined his career? I’ll let you decide which was best.
This category is a little trickier for #24. When people think of Kobe wearing his #24 jersey, fresh in our memories is his Farewell Game when he scored 60 points… but he did selfishly take 50 shots to get there. His highest scoring game was a regular season matchup against the Portland Trailblazers in 2007, dropping 65 points en-route to an overtime victory, but people seem to forget this one. His most memorable offensive explosion was in 2009, when he scored 61 in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks, but again, it’s still not as memorable. I think it’s because everyone seems to remember this Kobe for finally being able to win a championship as the unquestioned leader of the Lakers. So, as an audience, we had seen him explode in the regular season before. We wanted to see him be more like Mike, and do it when the games really mattered.
A memorable game for Kobe when the stakes mattered most occurred in Game 1 of the 2009 NBA Finals. This was his second straight trip to the Finals, his previous Finals game being June 17, 2008, a 39 point massacre in a deciding Game 6 at Boston. As soon as the playoffs started, this was a much more focused and less jovial Kobe Bryant, at least towards the media. In 2008, en-route to winning the regular season MVP and his first trip to the Finals sans-Shaq, Kobe was all smiles. Even as his team let a 24 point lead disappear to go down 3-1 in the series, he was still telling jokes. When asked, How do you bounce back from a game like this?, Kobe’s response was, “… a lot of wine, a lot of beer, a couple shots, maybe like 20 of them… digest it, go back to work…” You can practically see how uncomfortable he is being up there in front of the media, after the most humiliating loss of his career (at the time). It was foreign territory for the normally media-friendly Kobe. He probably wanted to really tell them all, “Get the hell out of this media room because I’m about to tear this whole fucking place apart”.
In 2009, there was no holding back. Kobe still looked pissed off about 2008, and he was very short with his answers. He would not be caught dead smiling unless his hands were clutching the Larry O’Brien trophy. In Game 1, he finally got to let all of those frustrations out, and the poor Orlando Magic would have to pretend to be the Boston Celtics. You tell me he didn’t see Celtic Green instead of Magic Powder Blue as he jacked up 34 shots on his way to 40 points, keeping in mind he lost his last Finals game by 39. He also recorded 8 rebounds, 8 assists, and 2 blocks, to go with a 1-0 series lead. This was also the game where Kobe makes the impressionable “Kobe Face”, jutting out his jaw in an angry scowl as he dismantled the opposition.
The Lakers would go on to win the series in 5 games. But, as good as winning a championship without Shaq had felt, Orlando was not Boston. Even with a Finals series victory under his belt, Kobe had still not vanquished his demons from 2008. The Celtics could not advance past Orlando that season because they had lost Kevin Garnett to injury, and would lose at home to the Magic in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semi-finals; however, there would be no excuses, for either team, the following season.
The Lakers and the Celtics would meet again in the 2010 NBA Finals and pick up where they left off. The Lakers finished Game 1 in Los Angeles with a 1-0 series lead. In Game 2, the Celtics would take the momentum back from them and even the series, thanks to a Finals record eight 3’s from Ray Allen. Derek Fisher’s late game heroics showed the Lakers were not ready to quit, as they stole the first road game back from Boston, putting them ahead 2-1. Boston would win the next two games, taking advantage of a hobbled Andrew Bynum (does everyone just choose to forget he was not quite the same since Game 3? They had to keep draining his swelling knee before and after games for God’s sakes), and relying on big games from role players Glen “Big Baby” Davis and Nate Robinson. The Celtics would head back to Los Angeles with a 3-2 series lead.
Game 6 was an utter shellacking of the Celtics back in Los Angeles, which was expected. This series had 7 games written all over it. And now the Celtics would have to continue their title quest without starting center Kendrick Perkins, who could not finish the game due to a knee injury (if anyone remembers the moment this happened, the entire Staples Center is booing Kendrick as he is writhing in pain. This is because the last time Lakers fans saw a Celtic crying holding his knee, he was pushed off the court in a wheelchair… only to return in that very same game and finish the series as Finals MVP).
Game 7 probably had the most stakes ever in a Finals game in over a decade. If the Lakers lost, that would be two in a row for Boston vs. LA, basically nullifying the Lakers 2009 Finals victory. Because now the Celtics can say, had they been there in 2009, they would have stomped them out three straight years. Kobe would join Jerry West as another Lakers legend who, while great, could not get it done against the Celtics. With this sad fact, and him falling one ring short of five, there would be no chance of him joining Magic and Kareem at their table of Lakers Greats. With a Lakers victory, Kobe’s 2009 championship is validated, and even some questions about 2008 can be raised (remember, the Lakers were without starting center Bynum). Kobe gets five rings, tying him with Magic and Kareem as Lakers (and giving him one more than Shaq), and the Lakers avenge their 2008 loss against their hated rival from Boston. The Lakers would also pull to within one of the Celtics in all-important total championships, 16-17 (and if you’re one of those stupid Celtics fans saying, “Sorry Dan, L.A. only has 11 championships to Boston’s 17!”, I have to ask you, how many of those 17 championships have you actually lived through? I think it’s fair for Lakers fans to celebrate 5 championships won for Minneapolis if Celtics fans are allowed to celebrate potentially 13 championships that they have only ever read about [the rivalry is real]).
The day is June 17, 2010, two years to the day that the Lakers lost the NBA championship in dramatic fashion to the Celtics. The game tips off, and both teams appear gassed. It had been a both mentally and physically taxing series, and it was like watching two boxers fighting in an extra 13th round. The Lakers faithful could always rest easy, knowing they had the ultimate competitor in Kobe Bryant, who didn’t wilt away from games like this, but rather, actively sought them out; however, Kobe would not start, nor finish this game in his standard Kobe fashion. It was like watching Happy Gilmore after that “Jackass!” guy hit him with the Volkswagon. There was something off about him (his shot), and head coach Phil Jackson, the Lakers, and their fans, could only watch and hope someone else could come through for them.
That someone else was a favorite scapegoat of Lakers fans and all-around bully Ron Artest. While the Celtics looked to Rasheed Wallace to remedy the hole left by Perkins’ injury, Artest had himself a James Worthy-esque Game 7 (of sorts). Ron-Ron would finish the game with 20 points, 5 rebounds, and a game high 5 steals. 3 of his 20 points would come off a dagger that basically sealed the victory for the Lakers, and he was a key contributor in erasing a late game 13 point deficit.
Kobe would finish the game with 23 points, but on 6-24 shooting. Perhaps recognizing it was not his night, Kobe found another way to put his stamp on the game, snatching 15 rebounds (11 defensive). Some may shrug this stat away like it was nothing, but you can’t score if you don’t have the ball, and in a series where rebounds dictated the winner and loser of each game, the Lakers were able to out-rebound the Celtics 53-40 (Celtics high man was Paul Pierce with 10, while Pau Gasol led the Lakers with 18).
To add to it’s importance, let’s say Kobe finished the game with only 14 rebounds. And, from out of the rafters, the basketball gods appeared, willing to award Kobe one more rebound, but it required erasing one awesome scoring performance from #24 Kobe’s library. Without hesitation, I would take it. 100 times out of 100. And I’d even throw in my left nut for good measure. The game was that tight, and that important.
It may not have been Kobe’s best game from an efficiency standpoint, and it certainly wasn’t his highest point total. But I challenge you to think of the #24 jersey hanging in the rafters, and tell me, what’s the first memory that comes to your mind? It’s your relieved psyche allowing you to hug a nearby Lakers fan, understanding just how narrowly you escaped humiliation back at work. It’s the Celtics walking off the Staples Center floor with their heads down, their 2008 victory reminding you to revel in their sorrow. It’s “I Love LA” blaring through the arena speakers, as chaos ensued in the stands (followed by more outside in the city streets). And it’s Kobe, with a death grip on his coveted Game 7 basketball (the real trophy to true competitors), purple and gold confetti raining all over his #24 jersey and 2010 NBA Champions Lakers hat, doing his best Michael Jordan “Five Rings” impression. If we judge #24 Kobe for winning the biggest games, it didn’t get any bigger than this one.
When something is memorable to you, it doesn’t matter how it happened. What matters most is that you can still remember that it did. That’s what makes this game, regardless of the box score, great.
Thank you for reading. Let the record show I am not downplaying Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game. 100 points is 100 points. I am simply convinced Kobe scoring his 81 points was far more impressive. Also, I am actually quite fond of two of Kobe’s games from this same playoff run (2010): Game 6 of the WCF to close out the Suns in Phoenix, and Game 5 of the NBA Finals in Boston. In both games, Kobe was not to be denied, and had particular stretches in each game where he was completely unstoppable (end of the fourth quarter against Phoenix, and the entire third quarter against Boston). You got the sense from both crowds that they were simply crossing their fingers and praying to the basketball gods that their team would somehow withstand the unparalleled offensive barrage, with the scoreboard in their favor (Boston actually did this); however, I would not look back at either of these games as fondly, perhaps even removing them from my memory entirely, if the Lakers do not win that Game 7. Follow me on Twitter, @cleanupglass, for more of my basketball “logic”, as well as a few rants and jokes about the NBA season.