In just under 42 minutes of on-court time, Bryant piled up 81 points (28-of-46 from the field, 7-of-13 from three, 18-of-20 from the line) to lead his Los Angeles Lakers past the visiting Toronto Raptors, 122-104.
That performance still stands as the second-most prolific in league history, behind only Wilt Chamberlain's legendary 100-point game.
The particulars of and the highlights from that masterpiece of a game haven't changed, though things certainly have for the major players involved. Both teams' rosters have turned over countless times since then. Jalen Rose retired in 2007, Chris Bosh left Toronto to join the Miami Heat in 2010 and Mike James, who started at point guard for the Raptors that night, is still (somehow) finding work in The Association.
And that's to say nothing of the other seven Raptors who got the call from Sam Mitchell that night, all of whom have left Toronto in the intervening years.
As for the Lakers, Bryant is one of three players from that squad, along with Andrew Bynum and Ronny Turiaf, to have gotten any run at all in the NBA in 2013-14. Turiaf only recently returned from a two-month injury hiatus, Bynum remains in search of employment after being traded away by the Cleveland Cavaliers and promptly cut by the Chicago Bulls, and Bryant is waiting for his knee to heal.
How Kobe Has Changed
All told, Kobe is the only participant from that historic game on Jan. 22, 2006 who hasn't opted for anyone else's threads.
Bryant, though, is hardly the same player now that he was back then. At the time, Bryant was a brash 28-year-old working toward the first of his back-to-back scoring titles. He was just three days removed from dropping a then-career-high 62 points on the Dallas Mavericks and but a year-and-a-half clear of forcing the Lakers to trade Shaquille O'Neal.
By and large, Bryant was still testing the limits of what he could accomplish without the Big Diesel by his side. Even before Toronto came to town for that fateful evening, Bryant had upped the ante as a scorer without Shaq:
|Kobe's Scoring, Pre- and Post-Shaq, Up to Jan. 22, 2006|
Kobe's career since then has been nothing short of sensational. He's changed his number (from 8 to 24), concocted a handful of nicknames for himself, been named the league's MVP, taken the Lakers to three straight Finals, won two more championships and...well, kept scoring. Bryant's racked up an astounding 16,265 points in the 579 games that've followed his 81-pointer—an average of about 28.1 points per outing. That slate features 15 other instances of Bryant topping the 50-point plateau, including a 65-point explosion at the expense of the Portland Trail Blazers from March of 2007.
Only six of those 579 games and 83 of those 16,265 points have come during a 2013-14 campaign that easily doubles as the most injury-riddled of Kobe's 18-year career. He sat out the first six weeks of the season while recovering from a torn left Achilles tendon and returned to wearing street clothes less than two weeks later, after fracturing a bone in his left knee.
Not that the Black Mamba was particularly effective while he was on the court. The Lakers lost four of six as Bryant attempted to fill in for the team's depleted fleet of point guards. He alternated between single-digit scoring outputs and 20-plus-point outings, all the while shaking off rust, getting used to his new physical limitations and doing what he could to orchestrate an offense filled with unfamiliar faces.
Which he didn't do particularly well, if his poorly delivered passes and 5.7 turnovers per game are any indication.
According to Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding, the Lakers plan to re-evaluate Kobe's condition in late January, once they return from their annual Grammys road trip, though Bryant appears to have his sights set on a February comeback.
In short, Bryant was a far cry from the guy who'd averaged about 27-6-6 prior to last season's Achilles tear, much less the one whose torching of Toronto is an unforgettable part of NBA lore.
How the Lakers Have Changed
The Lakers of today, though, aren't all that different from the ones that needed Bryant's 81 to beat the lowly Raptors seven seasons ago.
That is, aside from the health of Bryant himself.
In both instances, the Lakers leaned on a versatile big man to serve as their second-in-command. Nowadays, that title belongs to Pau Gasol, where once Lamar Odom was the one to carry the mantle.
Each squad saw a steep drop in talent across the rest of its roster. The '05-'06 Lakers featured subpar players like Smush Parker, Chris Mihm and Kwame Brown in the starting lineup. The latest edition leans on an ever-shifting collection of castoffs, 15 of whom have garnered at least one start for Mike D'Antoni. In fact, only two players who've donned the Purple and Gold this season (Elias Harris and Manny Harris, who aren't related) have yet to sneak into D'Antoni's "Fave Five."
By comparison, the Lakers of seven years ago, with Phil Jackson back at the helm after a single-season hiatus, sifted through "just" 11 different starters. Bryant, Odom and Parker were the only ones to start every game in which they played that season. Four Lakers fit into that category this year, though only one (Gasol) is currently healthy enough to compete and has played in most of L.A.'s games thus far.
As bad as those Lakers looked at the time, they still had plenty going for them. They had two gifted players in their respective primes (Bryant and Odom), an all-time-great head coach (Jackson), a young center waiting in the wings (Bynum) and a slew of useful assets that would later be parlayed for a crucial piece (Gasol) in the championship puzzle that would eventually emerge.
Those Lakers would qualify for the playoffs in 2006 and go on to reach the NBA Finals just two years later, claiming consecutive titles immediately thereafter. The 2005-06 season was merely a step in the post-Shaq rebuilding process, albeit one that saw the Lakers qualify for the playoffs and blow a 3-1 lead to the Phoenix Suns in the first round.
The current iteration of the Lakers doesn't hold any such promise. Bryant's on the books for two more years after this one, for a total of $48.5 million, and would be hard-pressed to recapture his former glory in even fleeting form. Steve Nash, who's nearing his 40th birthday, would probably be thankful if he could play at all, amidst ongoing issues with the nerves in his back.
Aside from those two, Robert Sacre and potentially Nick Young, who has a player option for next season, this Lakers roster is ticketed for free agency this summer. General manager Mitch Kupchak and executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss figure to have significant cap space with which to play around if they so choose, though the upcoming talent pool could be shallow on marquee-worthy stars.
It might behoove the Lakers, then, to roll some of that flexibility over, rather than tie it up in mid-tier acquisitions. That way, they can pursue a big name from the potentially star-studded free-agent class of 2015.
Perhaps after plucking their next young stud out of the 2014 NBA draft. Despite recent wins in Detroit and Toronto, L.A. remains firmly in the mix for a lottery pick, its 16-26 record just two-and-a-half games better than that of the worst-in-the-West Utah Jazz.
How the NBA Has Changed
The path back to the top for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers is far more treacherous now than the one they had tread (and conquered) over the previous half-decade or so, thanks in no small part to the NBA's 29 other teams and their respective owners.
The lockout of 2011 and the collective bargaining agreement that ended it have ushered in a new era of shorter contracts for players and stiffer luxury tax penalties for free-spending franchises. Where once the Lakers could shell out upwards of $80 million per year on player salaries without blinking, they now must manage their cap carefully so as to both avoid onerous tax payments and maintain a level of flexibility needed to retool their roster from season to season.
The Lakers shouldn't have too much trouble navigating those new financial waters, even when taking into account the cap space that Kobe's new contract is set to soak up. They'll still have a solid slice of cap space at their disposal, assuming Gasol and the rest of L.A.'s motley crew scampers out of town this summer.
Neither should the Lakers fret about fielding a team that can compete in a league that's far more open, three-point-oriented and statistically savvy than it was when Kobe popped off for 81. The small-ball, pick-and-roll-centric style of play that's come to dominate the NBA in recent years was pioneered by D'Antoni, who gained notoriety as the head coach of the "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns in the mid-2000s. Say what you will about the Lakers' decision to hire MDA over Phil Jackson last season, but there's no denying that his experience and expertise as an offensive guru qualify him to navigate the Lakers through the NBA's overriding trends, which he helped to incite.
Kobe, though, is no fan of the more "finesse" brand of basketball that's become the lingua franca of the league. "It's more small ball, which, personally, I don't really care much for," Bryant told Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com prior to the Lakers' 102-100 overtime loss to the Chicago Bulls on Monday. "I like kind of smash-mouth, old-school basketball because that's what I grew up watching.
"I also think it's much, much less physical. Some of the flagrant fouls that I see called nowadays, it makes me nauseous. You can't touch a guy without it being a flagrant foul."
Bryant went so far as to suggest that the NBA's efforts to legislate physical contact out of basketball have, ironically enough, sapped the sport of the sort of skill that the newer rules governing defense were intended to promote.
"The truth is, it makes the game [where] players have to be more skillful," Bryant added. "Nowadays, literally anybody can get out there and get to the basket and you can't touch anybody. Back then, if guys put their hands on you, you had to have the skill to be able to go both ways, change direction, post up, you had to have a mid-range game because you didn't want to go all the way to the basket because you would get knocked ass over tea kettle. So I think playing the game back then required much more skill."
Could it Happen Again?
Maybe that supposed lack of skill among the game's younger generations will keep Kobe's 81 (and Wilt's 100) clear of any challenges for the foreseeable future.
Kevin Durant would seem the best bet among today's pros to so much as approach Bryant's milestone. He's several inches taller than Kobe, with a sharper shooting stroke, an ever-growing bag of offensive tricks and three scoring titles already under his belt, with a fourth well within his sights.
Moreover, Durant has shown that he's not afraid to take over a game, especially with All-Star sidekick Russell Westbrook sidelined by a knee injury. In 14 outings since Westbrook went back under the knife, KD has averaged 36.4 points on 52.2 percent shooting, with four games of 40 points or more—including a career-high 54 against the Golden State Warriors—disbursed therein.
Scarier still, Durant is only 25 and has plenty of room for improvement before he's tapped out his epic potential.
But even if KD crashes through his ceiling on the way to all-time greatness, it's tough to imagine him approaching Kobe's 81—and not for a lack of skill.
For one, there wouldn't appear to be any need for Durant to carry such a hefty scoring load at any point. The Oklahoma City Thunder's roster features enough capable scorers—between Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb—to ensure that KD doesn't have to take upwards of 40 shots in a given game, regardless of Westbrook's ability to play.
And when Russ is in the lineup, the need for Durant to set the nets ablaze with his shooting stroke in order for OKC to succeed decreases considerably.
Beyond that, Durant doesn't seem to possess the "me-ocentric" attitude to hijack the flow of a given game, at least not to the extent that Bryant did. As much as KD has tried to shift public perception by playing with more of an edge over the last few years, there's no getting around the fact that he's far more focused on helping his teammates and shooting when he has to rather than jacking up shots to his heart's content.
"As a leader, my main objective is to serve my teammates, help them out," Durant said after his career-high night against the Warriors (via the Associated Press). "Some nights, I've got to put it up, I've got to score. Some nights, I've got to do other things. Tonight, they found me and I was able to hit a few shots. I just tried to do as best as I can to lead the team and lead us to victory."
To be sure, the pool of potential 81-point scorers isn't limited to Durant. Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are all elite shot-makers whose mediocre clubs practically require them to fill it up from night to night. Stephen Curry, who tallied 54 points at Madison Square Garden last season, is always a threat to catch fire and shoot himself into a spectacular scoring performance. James Harden's creativity with the ball and ability to get to the free-throw line at will make him the closest facsimile to Kobe that you'll find in today's game.
Even LeBron James, who's long shown a preference for sharing over scoring, recently waxed philosophic about getting up more shots (per ESPN's Tom Haberstroh).
Still, the thought of anyone so much as scoring 70 points in a single game—in a league that's gone to great lengths to encourage ball movement and spacing and de-emphasize isolation play—is a fleeting one, at best. Doing so in the NBA of 2014 would require a singularly lethal scorer playing amongst relative scrubs, against an opponent with a porous (if not downright helpless) defense.
Kobe Bryant once again finds himself in just such a situation with this scrappy Lakers squad. Too bad he's so much older, with a broken-down body that now betrays him at every turn.
Otherwise, who knows if the Black Mamba could replicate his feat from eight years ago, if not crack the century mark—as he claimed he could've, upon watching his 81-point game last year?
You'll find me reminiscing about Kobe's 81-point game on Twitter...
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