The most incredible effort from a single player I’ve seen in person came on January 14, 2002 at Staples Center in Los Angeles. I bought tickets at the last moment and invited a friend for a night neither of us could have expected. I had already seen plenty of games in which Kobe Bryant scored at will, but this was another level altogether. He finished with 56 points in just three quarters of play, which was then a career-high. In light of his recent announcement that he is set to retire at the end of the season, it got me thinking. Just how great has Kobe Bryant been all these years?
Here’s one indicator: since that night against the Memphis Grizzlies that still feels like a dream, Bryant has scored more than 56 during six other games.
Maybe I should have known something special was brewing from the opening tip. After a Memphis basket, Kobe scored the first Laker points using multiple pump fakes followed by a wild scoop shot that found the hoop. By the time Bryant dunked the ball about five minutes in, he had already scored ten. When he wasn’t hitting mid-range jumpers, Kobe was getting to the hoop like only he could, dribbling all the way around Shane Battier for another dunk with 4:23 left in the first. A layup two minutes later gave him 18 for the quarter.
The second quarter got off to a promising start when Kobe tipped home a Mark Madsen miss. Later, Kobe showed his range with a straightaway three-pointer after a feed from Devean George. By this point, you could see the focus and confidence in his face even during timeouts. He had already scored 27 of the team’s first 43 when George stole the ball and set up another Bryant flush. On the Lakers’ final possession of the second, he made his second from behind the arc to register his second 18-point quarter.
Despite his terrific play in the first half, the way Kobe finished the third quarter is what I remember best.
With just under a minute left, Rick Fox grabbed a defensive rebound and made an outlet pass to Bryant. Kobe caught the ball just behind the three-point line, and the rest was poetry. He dribbled into the paint, perplexed Will Solomon with a quick behind-the-back crossover, and went up for the uncontested lay-in. His last basket of the night, coming with 23 seconds remaining, was even better.
Robert Horry’s bounce pass found Kobe, who was immediately surrounded by Pau Gasol and Tony Massenburg. Meanwhile, Rick Fox was wide open and let his teammate know it demonstratively. Level of difficulty be damned, a white-hot Bryant calmly pulled up in front of the double team and swished it from 13 feet to make it 20 points for the quarter. Kobe’s efficiency had shattered his previous high of 51 points set in 2000 during a game against Golden State that went to overtime.
Where was Shaquille O’Neal in all of this?
He had been suspended for attempting to punch Brad Miller in the prior game against the Bulls. In the end, it was a memorable season for the Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers, who went on to win a third consecutive title.
Bryant had a simple explanation for why he was so successful against Memphis:
“For some reason, I felt really good…the legs felt extremely good.”
Everyone remembers his 81 versus Toronto in January of 2006, but it’s harder to play any better than Kobe did against the Grizzlies. First of all, Phil Jackson sat him for the entire fourth quarter, despite the obvious objections of some fans in attendance. In Jackson’s defense, the Lakers were winning big and headed for a 120-81 victory. Kobe was on pace to score 75 if he played a full game, and he’d already shot 21-34 from the field including 3-6 on threes.
Taking in this performance was like listening to the jazz of Miles Davis at his peak. On that night, Bryant was an absolute artist.
photo via llananba