Kobe Bryant is calling it a career at the end of this season, and it’s not just a rumor anymore. In an eloquent letter/poem on The Players’ Tribune on Sunday, the Los Angeles Lakers star made it official:
… And we both know, no matter what I do next
I’ll always be that kid
With the rolled up socks
Garbage can in the corner
:05 seconds on the clock
Ball in my hands.
5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1
Love you always,
It’s hard to imagine the NBA without Kobe Bryant. Sure, the injuries that plagued the last few years and the dreadful season that the Lakers are having aren’t to be celebrated, but what this announcement does is give us the chance to celebrate the storied career of one of the all-time greats. We can remember how many thrills he gave us. We can remember the game-winning shots. We can remember that when the basketball world wanted and maybe needed a new Michael Jordan, he gave us the closest we may ever get. For 20 years, love him or not, Kobe Bryant has given us so many memorable performances, and today, I celebrate 20 of his best.
20. Game 7, 2000 Western Conference Finals
This is the game that essentially started the Lakers’ three-peat run at the turn of the century. On their way to the 2000 Western Conference Finals, the Portland Trailblazers knocked off the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz before running into the top-seeded Lakers. After taking a 3-1 lead in the series, the Trailblazers won the next two and led the decisive Game 7 by 15 points with 10 minutes to go.
Kobe was crucial down the stretch and led one of the most clutch playoff comebacks of all time, and the most well-known play from this game was actually a pass from Kobe, as his alley-oop to Shaq in the closing minutes all but sealed the victory. With Shaq only scoring 18 points, the Lakers would not have even had the chance to go for that first title without Bryant, who put up a line of 25 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists, and 4 blocks in the 89-84 win.
19. Game 5, 2008 Western Conference Finals
In Kobe’s first chance to return to the NBA Finals since the departure of Shaquille O’Neal, he made sure that he didn’t leave anything to chance. In Game 5 of the 2008 Western Conference Finals, with the Lakers holding a 3-1 series lead, Bryant bested fellow future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan and the Spurs with a 39-point performance. In 42 minutes on the floor, Kobe hit 16 of his 30 shots in a 100-92 win at Staples Center to close out San Antonio. This was also the season that Kobe won his first and sadly his only MVP award.
18. December 21, 2000 vs. Houston
This was actually Kobe’s most efficient game of his career as far as scoring is concerned. Sure, he’s scored 45 or more plenty of times, but not quite like this. On this night in Houston, Bryant put up 26 shots, hitting 20 of them for a remarkable .769 field goal percentage, easily the highest of his career. He only attempted one three-pointer in this game, which would certainly change as his career progressed, and he made that along with four of six from the free throw line to get to that 45-point total in a 99-94 Lakers win.
17. April 15, 2007 vs. Seattle
He didn’t take 26 shots in this game. Instead, he only took 25, but once again, he was highly efficient, making 18 of them. Kobe is always going to get his shots off, but when he starts making them like he did on this night, you know you’re in for a treat. This was the 10th game for Kobe Bryant in the 2006-07 season, and the 21st time in his career, in which he scored at least 50 points, and for some fun trivia, this is the last time that Seattle would give up 50 to an opposing player. And the Lakers beat the Supersonics. It was a good day.
16. November 30, 2006 vs. Utah
If anyone was questioning how Kobe would respond after having offseason knee surgery, the answer came on this night. He scored 52 points on 19 for 26 shooting, but that’s not even the most special part of that night. The Lakers held a 12-point lead at the half, but that wasn’t enough for Bryant. He came out of the locker room with a vengeance and proceeded to score 30 points in the third quarter alone, hitting all nine of his shots from the field and all 10 of his free throws. The Lakers went on to win the game by 30.
15. January 14, 2002 vs. Memphis
When Shaq is away, Kobe will play, and that’s exactly what happened on this night against the Memphis Grizzlies. With O’Neal not suited up, Bryant came out firing, and this was another one of those nights he was just on. He went 21 for 34 from the field, including three of six from deep, and 11 of 12 from the free throw line for a 56-point night in Los Angeles. Imagine what the numbers could have been had he played the fourth quarter (there’s a few like that on this list). The Lakers won handily, 120-81.
14. December 6, 2002 vs. Dallas
Speaking of putting up big numbers in a quarter, that’s exactly what Kobe did on this December night against the Dallas Mavericks, only this won wasn’t a blowout. It seemed like it was heading that way, as the Mavericks led by 27 points at one time in this game. However, Kobe, who wasn’t having the greatest game, wasn’t going to let the Lakers lose this one, and he reeled off 21 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Lakers to an improbable 105-103 victory. Kobe finished with 27 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists.
13. January 7, 2003 vs. Seattle
Only a few weeks after that performance against Dallas, Kobe had a record-setting night in L.A. against the Supersonics. Once again, it’s not that he scored 45 points, but it’s how he did it. Bryant would set an NBA record by hitting 12 three-pointers on this night in a 119-98 victory over Seattle. Donyell Marshall would tie that mark two years later, but Kobe still holds the record for most consecutive threes made. At one point in this game, he hit nine in a row.
12. Game 1, 2001 Western Conference Finals
The 2000-01 Lakers team dominated the playoffs that season on their way to the title, and it was games like this that led to that 15-1 march through the playoffs. In Game 1 of the 2001 Western Conference Finals, Los Angeles matched up with the San Antonio Spurs, but it was really no match at all. The Lakers would set the pace for the series, which they swept, with a 104-90 victory, and not only did Kobe score 45 points (there’s that number again) on 16 for 28 shooting, he also pulled down 10 rebounds.
11. March 28, 2003 vs. Washington
As Kobe’s farewell tour begins here in 2015, there was another farewell tour happening in 2003. March 28, 2003 was the last game that Michael Jordan would ever play at Staples Center, and if the torch hadn’t been passed already, it was on this night. Jordan certainly wasn’t in his prime at this point, but just having him on the court makes this one special. Kobe was hot from the start, and stayed hot throughout. He scored 55 points on 15 of 29 shooting, including 9 of 13 from beyond the arc, and 16 of 18 from the free throw line. I’m betting this game holds a special place in Kobe’s heart.
10. December 17, 1997 vs. Chicago
What you have to remember about this one is that at this point, Kobe wasn’t even starting yet. When you look back, it’s hard to believe that Bryant played behind Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones, but he was still just a kid then. So you can imagine how special it must have been for him to come off the bench and not only get 29 solid minutes, but to put up a performance like he did against the great Michael Jordan, who was in his prime for this one.
Jordan did what Jordan did in those days, scoring 36 points on 12 for 22 shooting, but Kobe kept up every step of the way, putting up 33 of his own on 12 of 20 from the floor. The Lakers lost this game, but for Kobe Bryant, this had to be a personal win, especially at 19 years old.
9. March 22, 2007 vs. Memphis
The other four starters in this game for the Lakers were Lamar Odom, Luke Walton, Kwame Brown, and Smush Parker….Kobe was going to put up a lot of shots, as was the case for much of the 2006-07 season when he really didn’t have a ton of help. Luckily, this was one of the nights when the shots were falling. He hit 20 of his 37 shots, three of his seven threes, and 17 of his 18 foul shots en route to a 60-point night. The Lakers needed every single one of those points too as they squeaked out a 121-119 win over Memphis.
8. March 16, 2007 vs. Portland
Only six days before that game against the Grizzlies, the Lakers were on a seven-game skid, but another insane night from Kobe would take care of that. In the first of four straight games where he would score 50 or more (only Wilt could say he did that), Kobe went off for 65 points, including a clutch three-pointer to send this game into overtime, which the Lakers would win.
His stat line for the night: 65 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals, 23-39 shooting, 8-12 three-pointers, 11-12 free throws. Just another night at the office.
7. Game 4, 2001 Western Conference Semifinals
Remember all of those classic Lakers-Kings playoff games? Kobe does, especially this one. This game happened during that magical playoff run that I mentioned earlier, and in Game 4 of the 2001 Western Conference Semis, Bryant sent the Kings home for the season by scoring 13 points in the first quarter, 15 points in the fourth quarter and 20 more in between for a total of 48 in a 119-113 victory. Oh, and he led everybody that night with 16 rebounds.
6. Game 4, 2000 NBA Finals
When the Lakers walked into Indianapolis for Game 4 of the 2000 NBA Finals, nobody was quite sure what to expect from Kobe. He had injured an ankle in Game 2 and was actually forced to miss Game 3. Not coincidentally, the Pacers took that game, and were in every single minute of this one as well. The score was tied at 104 after regulation, and with 2:33 left in overtime, Shaquille O’Neal, who had scored 36 points, fouled out. After playing through the pain for most of regulation, Kobe scored eight points in overtime, including a key put-back bucket to lead the Lakers to a 120-118 win and a 3-1 series lead. Kobe would win his first championship five days later.
5. Game 4, 2006 Western Conference Quarterfinals
If you just looked at the stat line, you might just think this was a normal night for Kobe. He played 38.5 minutes, scored 24 points, pulled down four rebounds, and dished out eight assists, but what’s so special about that? We’ve seen 65-point games, 50-point games, and 45-point games on this list, but it’s not the 24 points that matters here.
This game is on here because Bryant hit not one, but two buzzer beaters. Down two near the end of regulation, the Phoenix Suns had the ball, but a deflection from Smush Parker on the inbounds pass found Kobe, who hit a shot to force overtime. In the extra period, with six seconds left and the Lakers down one, Bryant found himself with the ball following a tip-off, headed down the court and pulled up and hit a shot to win the game for L.A., 99-98. Clutch.
4. Game 1, 2009 NBA Finals
After being decimated by the Celtics in the NBA Finals the previous year, Kobe was determined to lead the Lakers to a championship that didn’t involve Shaquille O’Neal, and his Game 1 performance of the 2009 NBA Finals left no doubt that he meant business. He destroyed Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic with 40 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, and two steals in the 100-75 victory. The Lakers would take the series in five.
3. December 20, 2005 vs. Dallas
I sometimes like to call this the “what if” game. What would have happened had Kobe Bryant played even one minute of the fourth quarter? You see, during the first three quarters of this game, he put up 62 points in about 33 minutes. In perhaps my favorite stat from this entire list, Kobe Bryant led the Dallas Mavericks after three quarters, 62-61. That’s insane. He was 18 for 31 from the floor, four of ten from deep, and hit 22 out of 25 foul shots. He also chipped in with eight boards and three steals. I suppose the “what if” came about a month later.
2. February 2, 2009 vs. New York
“MVP! MVP! MVP!” It wasn’t unusual for Kobe Bryant to hear this chant throughout his career, but it’s usually normal to hear this on your home floor. This happened to Kobe Bryant at Madison Square Garden against the hometown New York Knicks. Having a big night at the Garden is a big deal for any player, and this was a big night for Kobe and for the Lakers as well. What sometimes gets lost in this game is that Pau Gasol had a great night with 30 points on 12 for 17 shooting, but one tends to get overshadowed when #24 is going off for 61.
1. January 22, 2006 vs. Toronto
There was no other game, playoffs or otherwise, that could be at the top of this list. Kobe Bryant scored 81 points on this night. There’s not much more to say than that, but I’ll give you the quick breakdown anyway. In the second-highest single game total in history, only behind Wilt’s 100, Kobe put on the single greatest offensive performance of the modern era. Yes, I would put it ahead of Chamberlain’s game because Kobe is a guard while Wilt could dominate the middle.
Kobe hit 28 of his 46 shots that night, and before you start in with the argument that anyone could score 81 if they shot that much, allow me to tell you that Michael Jordan tried it once, actually taking 49 shots in a game against Orlando in 1993. He scored 64 that night. Kobe made 7 of 13 threes on this night and hit 18 of 20 free throws to reach the historic number.
Kobe Bryant will go down as one of the greatest players to ever play the game of basketball, and it’s been a true privilege to have been able to follow this 20-year journey. Hopefully, he can give us a few more memorable performances like these on his farewell tour. Thanks Kobe.
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