During the 2002-03 season, the Los Angeles Lakers were attempting to become the first team since the 1960s Boston Celtics to win four championships in succession. That dream would end brutally in the second round of the playoffs, as the Lakers were eliminated in six games by the eventual-champion San Antonio Spurs.
As he left the court in tears following that Game Six, Kobe Bryant said that he never wanted to feel that feeling again. At the beginning of the summer of 2003, it appeared he may get his wish.
With the additions of aging stars Gary Payton and Karl Malone, the Los Angeles Lakers boasted the most star-studded lineup since the 1999 Houston Rockets. Another Lakers championship seemed a foregone conclusion.
In a single moment that would come to epitomize one of the most dramatic and dysfunctional teams in the history of sports. Bryant's hope to never experience a postseason loss again suddenly became the least of his problems. Accused of rape and prosecuted in criminal court, it appeared that the Lakers' hopes of another title had vanished.
It seemed a near certainty that Bryant would take the season off as he attempted to fight for his freedom in court. However, Bryant maintained that he wanted to pursue another title with this team. He would play the entire season, missing games only for interfering court dates or injuries.
As if Bryant's rape trial were not a large enough distraction, the Lakers' two best players began a feud that would dominate the sports media. The unprecedented public battle between Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant would take the already fascinating Lakers season to a surreal level.
During the 2002-03 season, O'Neal suffered an injury. Los Angeles was forced to rely heavily on Bryant for the first time. Bryant responded with one of the greatest scoring runs in history. His amazing accomplishments included a 40-point half in one game, a game in which he scored 56 points in three quarters, and a stretch of nine consecutive 40-point games.
Bryant's amazing season coincided with the last truly dominant season of O'Neal's career. In 2003-04, as age, injuries, and poor conditioning caught up to him, O'Neal would average a career low in points per game. Fortunately for Los Angeles, Bryant was prepared to take the reins of a great team.
Despite injuries, court appearances, and constant tension with Shaq, Bryant turned in a spectacular season. He was named to the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team. During the postseason, Bryant would continue to make amazing plays and play sensational games.
After failing to make it to the NBA Finals in 2003, and in spite of all their problems, the Lakers would find themselves in the Championship Round for the fourth time in five years.
Game One (Pistons Win, 87-75)
Statistics: 47 MIN, 10-27 FG, 1-6 3 FG, 4-4 FT, 4 REB, 4 AST, 4 STL, 2 BLK, 3 TO, 25 PTS
In the first Finals game for the Lakers since closing out New Jersey in 2002, the Detroit Pistons would pull one of the most shocking upsets in championship history. Heavily favored and facing a Pistons team that struggled mightily during the season, it seemed L.A. would dominate on the way to another title.
With Kobe Bryant struggling against the defense of Tayshaun Prince, the scoring burden fell on O'Neal and the rest of the Lakers. Shaq answered, making 13-of-16 shots for 34 points. However, the rest of the Lakers would score only 16 points.
Despite poor shooting, Bryant's defense on Pistons leading scorer Richard Hamilton was key to holding Detroit to just 87 points. Hamilton went just 5-of-16 from the field. However, Gary Payton's sub-par defense on Chauncey Billups, who hit 8-of-14 shots, as well as Derek Fisher's 1-for-9 shooting performance, would be just enough for Detroit to win.
Game Two (Lakers Win, 99-91 OT)
Statistics: 49 MIN, 14-27 FG, 1-5 3 FG, 4-5 FT, 4 REB, 7 AST, 2 STL, 0 BLK, 5 TO, 3 PTS
Coming off a Game One loss at home, L.A. desperately needed a victory. Bryant would provide it, with one of the great clutch performances in NBA Finals history.
Bryant began the game by providing more sensational defense on Richard Hamilton. Hamilton would finish shooting 10-for-25. However, this game would not be defined by defense. It would defined by the shooting of Kobe Bryant.
After scoring 26 points on some of the most difficult shots imaginable, Bryant would hit one of the biggest shots of his career up to that point. Trailing by three, Bryant would rise up and nail a three-pointer over of the defense of Hamilton with 2.1 seconds remaining in regulation.
In overtime, Bryant would continue to dominate. Of the 10 points the Lakers scored in overtime, Kobe had a hand in eight of them. A dunk and bank shot, as well as two feeds inside to O'Neal, gave the Lakers the victory they so desperately needed.
Game Three (Pistons Win, 88-68)
Statistics: 45 MIN, 4-13 FG, 0-4 3 FG, 3-3 FT, 3 REB, 5 AST, 1 STL, 1 BLK, 4 TO, 11 PTS
Having turned in one of his greatest Finals performances in Game Two, Bryant would follow with perhaps his worst. While every one of Lakers struggled mightily, the struggles of O'Neal and Bryant were the most shocking. The fact that the two had already won three titles together made the Pistons' defensive dominance all the more dumbfounding.
Bryant would struggle at both ends of the court. He scored only 11 points and failed to stop Hamilton or Billups, who combined for 50 points. O'Neal's 14 points were a Finals career low for him. He and Bryant were the only Lakers to score in double figures.
Bryant was held without a field goal in the first half, while L.A. scored a franchise Finals low 32 points in the first half and 68 in the game.
Game Four (Pistons Win, 88-80)
Statistics: 45 MIN, 8-25 FG, 2-6 3 FG, 2-2 FT, 0 REB, 2 AST, 1 STL, 0 BLK, 3 TO, 20 PTS
In a game that demonstrated Bryant's importance to the team over O'Neal's, the Lakers were pushed to the brink of their first Finals loss since 1991. O'Neal would dominate with 36 points and 20 rebounds, but Bryant would struggle through an 8-for-25 shooting performance.
Despite no one outside of O'Neal and Bryant scoring in double figures again, the game was tied entering the fourth quarter. However, Detroit would explode for 32 points in the final frame, with Rasheed Wallace abusing an injured Karl Malone and an overwhelmed Slava Medvedenko.
This game, along with the Game Two victory, displayed Bryant's importance to the team. While O'Neal continued to play well fairly consistently, the Lakers could not win without a strong performance from Bryant. O'Neal's days of carrying the Lakers were over. Bryant's had begun. Unfortunately for Los Angeles, those days would begin with a championship loss.
Game Five (Pistons Win, 100-87)
Statistics: 45 MIN, 7-21 FG, 0-2 3 FG, 10-11 FT, 3 REB, 4 AST, 1 STL, 0 BLK, 3 TO, 24 PTS
In shockingly dominant fashion, the Detroit Pistons finished off the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Five. Bryant would struggle spectacularly, taking and missing difficult jump shots throughout the game. While two Lakers outside of O'Neal and Bryant would finally score in double figures, it was not enough.
Bryant's first failure in the NBA Finals mercifully ended a season in which he supplanted O'Neal as the Lakers' best player.
In the ensuing offseason, Bryant would resolve his legal issues, O'Neal would be traded to Miami for Lamar Odom and others, and Phil Jackson would take a season off from basketball.
In the season following the 2004 NBA Finals, the Bryant-led Lakers would fail to make the postseason for just the fifth time in franchise history. This failure would lead to public sentiment that O'Neal was the key to the Lakers' success and Bryant was merely a selfish player interested in his own success.
In the two seasons that followed Bryant's first failure to make the playoffs, Jackson would return to the Lakers bench and Bryant would provide two of the greatest individual seasons in NBA history.
Then in 2008, Bryant would finally knock down many of his critics and carry his team back to the NBA Finals.
Kobe Bryant 2004 NBA Finals Averages (Five Games)
22.6 points per game
2.8 rebounds per game
4.4 assists per game
38.05 field goal percentage
46.2 minutes per game