Peak Kobe Bryant: Ranking the Mamba's Greatest Regular-Season and Playoff Games
Just over a year after the tragic death of Bryant, the fourth-highest scoring player in NBA history will be presented by Michael Jordan and lead a class that includes fellow all-timers Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.
Some of Bryant's personal and professional high points will surely be spotlighted Saturday, but a few omissions or hidden gems are all but guaranteed with a career so packed with prolific performances.
To determine which of Bryant's individual games were his most productive, single-game box plus/minus, game score and good old-fashioned points were all consulted. For the playoff games, added points were given based on the round in which the game was played.
If you sort every game in which Kobe played at least 25 minutes by the average of their ranks in all of the above, these are his three most productive regular season and three most productive playoff games.
Enjoy the ride down reminiscence road.
No. 3 Regular-Season Game: Jan. 14, 2002 vs. Memphis
Box Score: 34 minutes, 56 points (21-of-34 from the field, 3-of-6 from three, 11-of-12 from the line), five rebounds, four assists, one steal, zero turnovers
In the lead-up to his third and final championship alongside Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe's ascendence to the alpha role was, at the very least, underway.
In 2001-02, he averaged over 25 points for the second straight season, and he led the Lakers in assists, steals and free throws made per game. When Shaq was off the floor, he put up 30.6 points, 5.8 assists and 3.0 rebounds per 75 possessions.
It was becoming increasingly clear that he'd be a perennial MVP candidate (he finished fifth in voting for the honor that season).
And on January 14, in a game that Shaq missed because of suspension, Bryant had arguably the season's best individual performance.
The 46.3 game score that came as a result of the absurd line above only took three quarters to accumulate, and it was the high-water mark for the NBA in 2001-02 and a career high for Bryant to that point.
Of course, he'd top that on more than one occasion later in his career. And two of those games make up the rest of this top three (you can probably guess which two).
No. 2 Regular-Season Game: Dec. 20, 2005 vs. Dallas
Box Score: 33 minutes, 62 points (18-of-31 from the field, 4-of-10 from three, 22-of-25 from the line), eight rebounds, three steals, two turnovers
The 2002 beatdown of the Grizzlies wasn't the only time Kobe needed just three quarters to put a game away. Nearly four years later, when the Lakers were undoubtedly Kobe's team, he one-upped himself with 62 points in 33 minutes against Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks.
No other Laker even hit double figures in the 112-90 win.
In L.A.'s previous game, the team mustered just 74 points in a loss to the Houston Rockets. Kobe wasn't going to allow another dud like that.
"I was so frustrated by the loss the other night I was going to will us to victory," Bryant said after his eruption against Dallas. "I was very angry. I felt like I wanted to come out and send a message, that we're going to dominate at home. We're going to hit you, we're going to bring it to you. I wanted to send that message."
Throughout his career and that 2005-06 season, Bryant had a habit of sending messages to the opposition. His 35.4 points per game is the third-highest scoring average of the three-point era.
No. 1 Regular-Season Game: Jan. 22, 2006 vs. Toronto
Box Score: 42 minutes, 81 points (28-of-46 from the field, 7-of-13 from three, 18-of-20 from the line), six rebounds, three steals, one block, three turnovers
Just over a month after he dropped 62 in three quarters on Dallas, Kobe had what is perhaps the defining performance of his career against the Toronto Raptors.
For fans who are old enough to remember, it's one of those "where were you?" moments.
"When I got home, and I was able to see, and I was sitting there watching, I'm like, 'Man, it's unreal,'" Kendrick Perkins said on ESPN's The Jump.
"Man, I didn't know what I was watching," Paul Pierce added.
Even for someone who spent an inordinate amount of time watching highlights on ESPNEWS, I couldn't get enough of the wall-to-wall coverage. Like Perkins and Pierce, I was at a loss.
For context's sake, that game featured 95.4 possessions. This season, the slowest team in the league averages 96.5 possessions per game. In 1961-62, the season in which Wilt Chamberlain had his 100-point game, the Philadelphia Warriors averaged a staggering 131.1 possessions.
For Kobe to drop 81 in the iso-heavy and slower era that he did, before the three-point revolution started, is absurd. As incredible as the number itself is, it doesn't quite do the performance justice.
Regardless of who the Raptors threw at him, he just kept scoring, drawing fouls and inching closer and closer to a modern landmark that millions will never forget.
No. 3 Postseason Game: May 23, 2009 at Denver
Box Score: 41 minutes, 41 points (12-of-24 from the field, 2-of-5 from three, 15-of-17 from the line), six rebounds, five assists, two steals, one turnover
On the way to his first championship without Shaq, Kobe had a ridiculous Western Conference Finals against Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and the Denver Nuggets.
Over those six games, Bryant averaged 34.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists. His average game score was 26.8, the eighth-best average for a Conference Finals in the modern era.
(Kobe also has the No. 2 spot on that list, but you'll hear more about that in the next slide).
The Nuggets couldn't do anything with him, and that was especially true in Game 3. His 41 points say plenty on their own, but a little context makes them even more impressive.
The Lakers were coming off a grueling seven-game series against the Houston Rockets and had forfeited home-court advantage with a loss to the Nuggets in L.A. They were tired, and they looked it in Game 3.
"The tank was on 'E' for a lot of the plays we made tonight," coach Phil Jackson said. But moments like those were often when Kobe had an edge over the competition. Tired or not, he had that "refuse to lose" mentality to a degree few athletes across history had.
With just over a minute left and the Lakers down two, Kobe hit a three to take the lead, 96-95. He then hit five free throws over the remaining seconds of a 103-97 win on the road. Dropping eight of 41 in the waning moments of a conference finals game would've been the peak for plenty of players, but not for Kobe.
"Kobe does that time and time and time and time and time again for game-winners," Lamar Odom said after the game. It is routine—for him."
No. 2 Postseason Game: May 25, 2010 at Phoenix
Box Score: 45 minutes, 38 points (15-of-22 from the field, 6-of-9 from three, 2-of-4 from the line), 10 assists, seven rebounds, one steal, one block, two turnovers
This is the only performance on the list that came in a loss, though it's difficult to blame Kobe for it. And as he so often did, Bryant got the last laugh.
After Game 4, the Lakers won the next two games to secure a second straight Finals appearance. And Kobe's average game score over those six contests is the second-highest on record for a conference finals.
He averaged 33.7 points, 8.3 assists, 7.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks while shooting 52.1 percent from the field and 43.2 percent from three.
Even with all the incredible stretches of basketball Kobe played throughout his career, given the stakes, these six games may well have been his apex. Of the 43 playoff series in which he played, this one produced his career highs for a series in both average game score and box plus/minus.
And even if this particular line came in a loss, it might be best described as a crucial body blow in a heavyweight bout. A team as great as the 2009-10 Phoenix Suns can withstand one or two such performances, but four wins were too tall an ask.
No. 1 Postseason Game: June 4, 2009 vs. Orlando
Box Score: 38 minutes, 40 points (16-of-34 from the field, 0-of-1 from three, 8-of-8 from the line), eight rebounds, eight assists, two steals, two blocks, one turnover
Kobe made it clear in Game 1 of the 2009 Finals that Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic were terribly outmatched. His dominant individual performance headlined a 100-75 victory that tipped off what wound up a five-game gentleman's sweep.
The 40 points are probably the first number that pops out, but it's the rest of the box score, and the fact that it came in the Finals, that elevates it above the rest. He was barely below 50.0 percent from the field, but he made all his free throws, nearly reached a triple-double and threw in some defensive counting stats for good measure.
The intensity with which he piled up the numbers was almost palpable.
"I just want it so bad, that's all," Bryant said after the game. "I just want it really bad. You just put everything you have into the game, and your emotions kind of flow out of you."
Seven years after his last championship, Kobe had a chance to secure his first as the clear No. 1 for one of the most iconic franchises in sports. And he set the tone in that first game.
For the series, he averaged 32.4 points, 7.4 assists, 5.6 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 1.4 steals as he led L.A. back to the mountaintop.