Kobe Bryant, Champion: NBA Finals 2000
I think that we have all had enough of the Kobe Bryant comparisons. Whether it’s Kobe vs. LeBron or Kobe vs. Michael or Kobe vs. Every Past Laker, it really is starting to get old. Instead of just appreciating the greatness of Kobe Bryant, we have to depreciate it by comparing it to the greatness of others. I have decided to buck the trend of columns about Kobe’s legacy, and where he fits in NBA history. Instead, I am here to show you how great Kobe has been, without comparing him to anyone.
This is the first of a seven-part series looking back at the NBA Championships that Kobe Bean Bryant has been a part of. I will break down his performance in each of the 37 NBA Finals games in which he has played (and even the 38th in which he didn’t). Maybe after you read this, you will just recognize that one of the greatest athletes of all-time is here for us to view, and it’s our duty to enjoy it while it lasts.
From 1996, when Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant arrived, to 1999, the Los Angeles Lakers amassed a record of 148-46. This gaudy three-year span was among the most successful regular season runs in NBA history. However, this success failed to carry over to the postseason, as Los Angeles could only muster a 14-16 playoff record during these three seasons.
Phil Jackson’s arrival for the 1999-2000 season, along with the move into the Staples Center, would change the Lakers’ fortunes. Jackson, as the winner of six of the previous nine NBA championships, brought the postseason credibility L.A. sorely lacked.
With Jackson at the helm, the Lakers would soar to a 67-15 regular season record. This dominating run was fueled by Shaquille O’Neal, who would have one of the greatest seasons by a player in NBA history, and the greatest of his career. However, overshadowed by O’Neal’s brilliance, Kobe Bryant was breaking out, and making the transition from a premier talent to a premier player.
Bryant’s regular season would end with the collection of many accolades, including a spot on the Second Team All-NBA, as well as a selection to the First Team All-Defense team. His selection as the top defensive player at his position made him the youngest player in NBA history to make the First Team All-Defense.
After struggling to traverse the postseason, the Lakers would eventually reach the championship round, largely due to a dominant Game 7 effort by Bryant in the Western Conference Finals. However, despite his many accomplishments in his breakout season, Bryant’s finest performances were to come in his first NBA Finals.
Game 1 (Lakers win, 104-87)
38 MIN, 6-13 FG, 0-2 3FG, 2-2 FT, 3 REB, 5 AST, 1 STL, 2 BLK, 2 TO, 14 PTS
Bryant’s first NBA Finals game would be a rout, with Shaquille O’Neal proving to be too much for the Indiana with 43 points and 19 rebounds. Bryant provided the fast start in the game, going 4-6 in the first quarter for 8 quick points. From that point on, it would be O’Neal’s game, as he dominated the Pacers in his first Finals game since being swept by the Houston Rockets as a member of the Orlando Magic. Aside from his fast offensive start, Bryant’s most valuable contribution was his defense of Indiana’s leading scorer, Reggie Miller. Guarding Miller almost exclusively, Bryant would force the Pacer guard in to one of the worst shooting performances in NBA Finals history. Miller would shoot only 1-16 in the game, for a career playoff-low 7 points.
Game 2 (Lakers win, 111-104)
9 MIN, 1-3 FG, 0-1 3FG, 0-0 FT, 1 REB, 4 AST, 0 STL, 1 BLK, 0 TO, 2 PTS
Following a strong start to his Finals career, Kobe would suffer a major blow, injuring his ankle early in the second quarter. After distributing 4 assists in the first quarter, Bryant landed awkwardly on his ankle and was forced to miss the rest of Game 2. Following his early departure, Los Angeles would ride Shaquille O’Neal to a close victory, as he provided 40 points and 24 rebounds.
Game 3 (Pacers win, 100-91)
Game 3 of the 2000 NBA Finals marked the only time that Kobe Bryant would miss a Finals game. His loss was obvious early, as Reggie Miller, who had been held to only 28 total points in the first two games, would score 33 in the first Finals game at Conseco Fieldhouse. This game marked the beginning of Bryant’s indispensability as a player, as it became clear that O’Neal alone could not lead the Lakers to a title. Shaq’s 33 points and 13 rebounds did not prove to be enough without Bryant’s ability to create offense for the Lakers’ role players and his defense of Miller.
Game 4 (Lakers win, 120-118)
47 MIN, 14-27 FG, 0-0 3FG, 0-0 FT, 4 REB, 5 AST, 1 STL, 2 BLK, 3 TO, 28 PTS
In one of the greatest clutch performances in NBA Finals history, Kobe Bryant introduced himself to basketball’s biggest stage. Playing on an ankle that required heavy taping and ice throughout the game, Bryant pushed the Pacers to the brink of elimination. In the first half, Bryant appeared rusty and his ankle seemed to be a major problem. He would score only 6 points in the opening half, and picked up 4 fouls in his attempts to guard Mark Jackson and Reggie Miller.
It did not appear to improve for Kobe early in the second half, as he collected his fifth foul in the third quarter. However, worrying that his ankle would tighten with rest, Phil Jackson left Bryant in the game. He responded by making three consecutive baskets, and pulling the Lakers ahead. The Pacers would eventually pull even on a Sam Perkins three-pointer, and the game would go to overtime.
Kobe had scored 14 points in the second half, but O’Neal was still the Lakers’ first option, and continued to score early in the extra period. However, with 2:33 remaining in the game, Shaq fouled out. Facing the possibility of allowing the Pacers to draw even in the series, Phil Jackson allowed the 21-year-old Bryant to run isolation plays on three consecutive offensive possessions. On each of the three trips, Bryant scored.
Despite his hot shooting, the Pacers would pull to within one point with less than 40 second remaining in overtime. As the shot clock expired on L.A.’s final possession, Brian Shaw shot and missed a runner. However, with his most clutch basket off the game, Kobe Bryant rebounded the miss and put it in a reverse layup. The three-point lead created by the basket would be too much for Indiana to overcome, and the Lakers would take an insurmountable 3-1 lead in the series. Bryant’s 8 points in overtime are the second most overtime points in NBA Finals history.
Game 5 (Pacers win, 120-87)
37 MIN, 4-20 FG, 0-1 3FG, 0-0 FT, 5 REB, 3 AST, 2 STL, 0 BLK, 0 TO, 8 PTS
In one of the worst losses in Los Angeles’ postseason history, Kobe Bryant had his worst playoff game to date. Making only 20% of his shots for only 8 points, Bryant was among the many L.A. players to fail miserably with an opportunity to win the championship. The only Laker to have any offensive success was Shaquille O’Neal, as he scored 35 points.
Game 6 (Lakers win, 116-111)
45 MIN, 8-27 FG, 2-6 3FG, 8-9 FT, 10 REB, 4 AST, 1 STL, 2 BLK, 1 TO, 26 PTS
Playing with an opportunity to win a championship on their home floor, the Lakers proved to be up to the task. Led by the tandem of Shaquille O’Neal, who scored 40 points, and Bryant, with 26, Los Angeles won its first NBA Championship since 1988. Despite a poor shooting performance, Bryant once again proved himself in the clutch, hitting five free throws in the final minutes to hold off the Pacers’ comeback attempt. While O’Neal would rightfully be named Most Valuable Player of the Finals, Kobe Bryant had made his presence felt, and would return to the Championship Round the following year with a far larger impact.
Kobe Bryant’s 2000 NBA Finals averages (5 games):
15.6 points per game
4.3 rebounds per game
4.2 assists per game
44.2 minutes per game
41.25 field goal percentage