Originally posted earlier this season, we’re re-running one of our favorite Kobe Bryant pieces after he passed Wilt Chamberlain for fourth place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list this weekend.
*** *** ***
Kobe Bryant turned 34 years old in August. He might be getting old, but more importantly, we’re feeling old. Over 15 years ago Kobe held that infamous press conference, showing up with the black shades on his bald dome, announcing he was “taking my talents” to the NBA. Just a few months ago, we were ready to start writing his tombstone. The Lakers weren’t championship material, Kobe could no longer carry them to a title, and the rest of the team was old and brittle. Now? Bryant really has a chance to go down as one of the three or four greatest players ever.
He already has five titles, already has amassed over 30,000 career points, has already made 14 All-Star teams, and now he has Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol. While he’s no longer dropping 60-plus whenever it strikes his fancy, Bryant is still in a good spot.
Looking back, here are the 10 best games of his NBA career so far.
*** *** ***
10. KOBE VS. ORLANDO
June 4, 2009 at Staples Center
Lakers Win 100-75
Stats: 38 minutes, 16-for-34 shooting, 40 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists
Was this Kobe’s best game ever in the Finals? You can definitely make the case. He’s never scored more. Really, his best game might’ve come in the 2008 Finals during Game 3. Bryant had 36 points and physically dominated Boston for most of the way. But he missed seven of 18 free throws, and the Lakers ended up losing the series even though they won the game.
On this night against Orlando, he set the tone from the start. The Lakers had to get up early, and they followed KB’s lead. The shots he was hitting were unbelievable: double-pump pull-ups, fallaways where he couldn’t even see the hoop. The Magic never really had a shot, and Kobe’s claim as the best player in the game never felt stronger. This was the start of a MVP-winning series.
In the third quarter, he dropped the hammer, and pushed the Lakers out in front by 20. Plus, he busted out the weird playoff sneer he had going for a while. Always memorable.
9. KOBE VS. SACRAMENTO
May 13, 2001 At Arco Arena
Lakers Win 119-113
Stats: 48 minutes, 15-for-29 shooting, 17-for-19 from the line, 48 points, 16 rebounds, 3 assists
This game loses a little of its importance once you realize the series was already over. L.A. was up 3-0, they hadn’t lost a game in nearly six weeks, and the Kings were already moving on to the summer; there were rumors free agent Chris Webber would not come back. But besides that? It was a masterpiece.
Bryant played every minute, and when Shaq got into foul trouble, the sidekick took it over. He started jawing at the crowd, getting in Doug Christie‘s face and having a grand ol’ time. As he said prior, “We want to cut their hearts out. Absolutely.” In something that would become a bit of a trend for Bryant, he did all of this (he also had 36 in Game 3) over the weekend after rushing back and forth between L.A. and Sacramento to be with Vanessa, sick at the time.
In one of the first playoff instances where Bryant assured everyone they could count on him (some of the others: his 2000 NBA Finals Game 4 takeover, a buzzer-beater to beat Phoenix earlier in that same postseason), he scored 28 points in the second half and 15 in the fourth.
8. KOBE VS. SAN ANTONIO
May 11, 2004 at Staples Center
Lakers Win 98-90
Stats: 45 minutes, 15-for-27 shooting, 42 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals
In Game 4 of their second round series against the Spurs, the Lakers were in the same exact position as the year before: down 2-1 and without homecourt advantage. In 2003, Robert Horry‘s potential game-winner (and a shot that probably swung the entire postseason) spun in and out in Game 5 and the Lakers lost the series to San Antonio. This time, things would be different.
Bryant always loved the pressure of the big game, sometimes too much. Earlier in the day, he pleaded innocent to felony sexual assault in Eagle, Colo. before making it to the arena just two hours before the game started. Tired? He dropped 15 points in the fourth quarter, and his second-half shooting display was like something out of a movie. Every time the Spurs made a run, it was Bryant who answered with an impossible shot, and then in the final minutes, he drove the knife in.
Even as their relationship was beginning to crumble, Bryant’s performance got Shaq to say this afterwards: “I don’t see how he does it. He’s a fabulous player, probably the best player that ever played the game, especially with all the stuff he’s been going through. And it was a fabulous night for him, a memorable night.”
7. KOBE VS. MEMPHIS
Jan. 14, 2002 at Staples Center
Lakers Win 120-81
Stats: 34 minutes, 21-for-34 shooting, 56 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists
Kobe’s forgotten 50-point game. Everyone talks about the night he dropped 62 and didn’t play in the fourth quarter, but this one came all the way back in 2002 – when it was still Shaq‘s team – and Bryant destroyed Memphis so thoroughly he didn’t play much in the fourth. It’s amazing when one player is so good that no one even talks about the night he scored 56 points in 34 minutes. I’m guessing he tops 70 against the Grizz if he was given the chance in the final period.
O’Neal actually didn’t play in this game, so anyone who tries to say Bryant’s numbers were better as a young guy because of the attention that Shaq drew is just a fool.
6. KOBE VS. WASHINGTON
March 28, 2003 at Staples Center
Lakers Win 108-94
Stats: 41 minutes, 15-for-29 shooting, 9-for-13 from deep, 55 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals
Could I say this came against Michael Jordan, and so in effect, it was a passing of the torch? Jordan on his way out, Kobe pushing the wheelchair. Yeah, that makes for a great storyline, but this game could’ve come against anyone and it would probably be here. The first half was the single greatest shooting display in Kobe Bryant’s career. Better than the 81-point game. Better than the 12-triple game against Seattle. This was as good as it gets.
Just check out these numbers: Bryant scored 42 points in the half, and amazingly he had 40 points with five minutes to go in the second quarter. At one point, he made nine consecutive shots and scored 23 consecutive points during that run (in five minutes and 42 seconds!). He hit eight threes in the first half, and was 14 of his first 16 from the field. He scored 30 of the team’s first 38 points. That’s stupid.
5. KOBE VS. SAN ANTONIO
May 19, 2001 at The Alamo
Lakers Win 104-90
Stats: 47 minutes, 19-for-35 shooting, 45 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists
Bryant was never better as an all-around player than he was during the Lakers’ 2001 playoff run. They lost just once during the postseason, and up until the Finals, Bryant was their best player.
In the Western Conference Finals (just one game after he eviscerated Sacramento in the second round), Bryant went into the house of the best team in the league, and must’ve dunked on the Twin Towers at least three times. By the end of the night, Doug Collins, who was announcing, was in love. Bryant set the tone for the series, and let everyone know the Spurs had no chance. Afterwards, Shaq called Kobe his idol, and “the best player in the league…by far” just months after the two of them nearly torpedoed the Lakers’ season.
Apologies for the weak feed on this video… everyone else wanted to disable embedding. Pretty annoying.
4. KOBE VS. PORTLAND
March 16, 2007 at Staples Center
Lakers Win 116-111/OT
Stats: 50 minutes, 23-of-39 shooting, 65 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals
Looking back on it, we should’ve seen this coming. The Lakers were in the midst of a seven-game losing streak, and all of their good fortune from the beginning of the season – like how Luke Walton suddenly turned into a decent player – was going up in smoke. They were 33-32, and on the brink of not even making the playoffs. Kobe was a few months short of demanding for a trade, and a little less than a year away from getting Pau Gasol.
So KB took things into his own hands, and started off a run of four consecutive 50-point games.
The Blazers endured a lot of Kobe suffering. They blew a Game 7 in L.A. in 2000 after Bryant took over in the fourth quarter; they once had Ruben Patterson embarrass himself by saying he was the “Kobe stopper”, only to get rocked in the first round of the playoffs; they lost a game at the end of the 2004 regular season because Bryant hit two of the craziest three-pointers you’ll ever see; and then on this night, they watched Kobe ring up 33 points in the fourth quarter and overtime.
3. KOBE VS. NEW YORK
Feb. 2, 2009 at Madison Square Garden
Lakers Win 126-117
Stats: 37 minutes, 19-for-31 shooting, 20-for-20 from the line, 61 points
Setting a record in MSG is one thing. Doing it one game after losing Andrew Bynum to a major knee injury (after YOU fell into him)? That’s big time. It was as if Kobe brought everyone together and told them, “Look, it’s going to be okay. I got this.” Then he went out and one-upped Bernard King, turning the world’s greatest arena into his own personal playground.
Afterwards, Kobe met up with Spike Lee, who had been sitting in the front row. Lee – who was working on the “Kobe Doin’ Work” film – had to curl up in a ball and take the relentless lashing Bryant gave him afterwards. When someone is hitting spinning shots in the lane, doing 360 pivots, banging triples and wetting shots off the wrong foot as they’re running towards the sideline, they’re allowed to say whatever they want.
2. KOBE VS. DALLAS
Dec. 20, 2005 at Staples Center
Lakers Win 112-90
Stats: 32 minutes, 18-for-31 shooting, 22-for-25 from the line, 62 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals
After Phil Jackson took Kobe out at the end of the third quarter, a clear blowout underway, the talk quickly began. Everyone thought the Zen Master robbed us of history, robbed us all of seeing a man challenge the limits of what could be done by a 6-6 player in the NBA. Wilt‘s 100 was unreal, but he did it during an era where no one could look him eye-to-eye, and during a season where his team’s whole goal was to let him score as much as possible to attract fans. Seriously.
Those who complain about Bryant finishing the night without an assist aren’t real basketball people. Who passes when you’re dropping 30 points in one quarter? Who passes when you outscore an entire team (a team, remember, that went to the Finals that year) through three quarters? No one wanted to see Kwame Brown taking 15-footers.
1. KOBE VS. TORONTO
Jan. 22, 2006 at Staples Center
Lakers Win 122-104
Stats: 42 minutes, 28-for-46 shooting, 81 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals
As if you really expected the top spot to be anything else. I’m tired of hearing everyone from Vince Carter to the random bums on YouTube throw hate at this game. Yes, it came against the Raptors, who were 14-26 at the time. Yes, he took 46 shots and only had two dimes. Yes, that entire season consisted of a lot of 23-foot fallaways from Bryant while the other four Lakers stared off into space. Yes, when he exited the game, his teammates weren’t rushing to congratulate him the way you’d think considering he did something no other guard in league history has ever done. Even Phil Jackson seem kind of amused by the entire spectacle.
But outside of Wilt, Kobe still dropped more points than anyone ever has.
I vividly remember checking box scores on this night, looking to see how my fantasy team was doing. I came on the Lakers/Raptors game and had to yell to my roommate, “YOOO! Kobe has 50 points in the third quarter!” We started to go crazy, refreshing every 10 seconds and soon it was,” HOLY s$%&! He’s going to score 70!” A few minutes later, we were texting people, yelling on telephones, acting a fool. Once he got to 80 and then 81, I knew I’d have to save a few newspapers from the next morning.
What’s the best game from Kobe that didn’t make this list?
Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.