With Lakers guard Kobe Bryant becoming the fifth and fastest player in NBA history to score 30,000 points, Dime is looking at all angles of the five-time champion’s career today. (Hey, we already called him the greatest player since 2000.) It’s equal parts celebration and examination of one of the NBA’s most polarizing and talented players in history.
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It’s a bit blustery to compare Kobe Bryant‘s 81-point game to watershed moments in American history. For the vast majority of American citizens, his offensive explosion on a cold January night was a small blip on the radar screen of history. It’s not like the Twin Towers falling during the terrorist attacks on 9/11 or John F. Kennedy‘s assassination in Dallas, Texas. But for a cadre of basketball fanatics, media personnel and NBA players themselves, the day Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in a modern, professional basketball game will always remain a lodestone for discussion of Bryant’s scoring prowess.
With Kobe scoring his 30,000th point last night to join Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only NBA players to achieve that milestone, it’s fitting that we discuss Kobe’s most heralded 81.
So, where were you when you saw Bryant’s explosion? Or more likely, in the days before League Pass’s presence became somewhat mandatory in living rooms and on laptops worldwide, how did you hear about it?
In a lot of ways, the 2005-06 Los Angeles Lakers were perfectly contrived to squeeze every last ounce out of Bryant’s gladiatorial demeanor on the hardwood. On a team featuring starters like Chris Mihm at center, Kwame Brown and Lamar Odom at the forward spots, and the point guard that’s already strangely and publicly raised the ire of Kobe before this season, Smush Parker, Bryant was basically it for the Lakers on the offensive end that season. As someone that doesn’t particularly enjoy Bryant on a personal level but who can appreciate his gifts on the basketball court, I always thought this was his finest, individual season. It had to be.
He averaged a Jordan-esque 35.4 points per game in 41 minutes during the 80 games he appeared in. Only Odom, the maligned Parker and Chris Mihm averaged double-figures that season (Odom was the next-highest behind Kobe at 14.8 points per game). To put Kobe’s scoring average in context, no NBA scoring champion had averaged over 35 points per game since Jordan’s ridiculous 1987-88 campaign when he averaged 35 points a night exactly. The 2005-06 Lakers would finish their season 45-37, good for third in the Pacific Division and a No. 7 seed in the Western Conference that spring. They would lose in the first round of the playoffs over seven games to league MVP (it was his second in a row) Steve Nash and his SSOL Phoenix Suns team. That team was coached by Bryant’s coach from last night, Mike D’Antoni.
The Lakers were awful that year, and save for the scoring grace of Kobe, they probably would have finished among the bottom five teams in the league. I’ve already mentioned their starters, but just look at their roster. Suffice to say, Kobe was their only real weapon, and opposing teams knew that. Even as the focus of every opposing defense, Kobe averaged over 27 shots a game, and still managed to shoot 45 percent. The gameplan for every Lakers opponent that season was to stop Kobe because if you stopped Kobe, you stopped the Lakers. So how in the hell did he drop 81 points on the Toronto Raptors during the Lakers’ January 22 game?
People forget how close this game actually was. The Raptors weren’t very good, but neither were the Lakers. In the first half, Toronto got out to a seven-point lead, and added another seven points in the second quarter for a 14-point halftime cushion. Even though the Lakers were struggling, Kobe was shooting pretty well. Through two quarters, he was 10-for-18 from the field (1-for-2 from three and 5-for-6 from the line) for 26 points, scoring 14 in the first quarter and 12 in the second. That’s a pretty spectacular half, but ho-hum in comparison to what came next. If he’d scored at the rate he did in the second half, his final tally might have been higher.
A little more than a month earlier, Bryant had dropped 62 points on the Dallas Mavericks… in only three quarters’ time. A lot of fans were upset Phil Jackson didn’t leave Kobe in for the fourth quarter to go after a record, but Kobe sat with the game already in hand. Things were different in the new year against Toronto: the Lakers were losing, by double-digits, and they needed their superstar to do what he does best: rain buckets.
As I said, Kobe was shooting well, but the rest of his team – as was common that season – wasn’t giving him much support. At halftime, the Raptors led 63-49. The Lakers made that entire deficit up and more in a wild third quarter, though. Kobe shot 11-for-15 from the field in the third, including 5-for-6 from behind the arc, and a made free throw. He bested his first half total, 26 points, by one, scoring 27 points in 12 minutes as the Lakers outscored the Raptors, 42-22, to take a six-point lead into the fourth. Through three quarters, Kobe Bryant had scored 53 points. It wasn’t quite as many as he had against Dallas through three, but fans watching on television (I was not one of them, which we’ll get to), had to know they were watching something special.