Kobe Bryant, Champion: NBA Finals 2001
For the first time since the 1987-1988 season, the Los Angeles Lakers entered the summer as world champions. The difference between the 2000 Lakers and the 1988 Lakers was that the latter's championship had been a repeat title. Attempting to match that back-to-back feat is the challenge that stood before L.A. in the summer of 2000.
Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal had proven to be the ultimate hero-sidekick tandem in 2000, with Bryant providing suffocating perimeter defense and creativity, and O'Neal providing dominating inside play at both ends of the court.
However, this seemingly symbiotic relationship shared by the Laker superstars would come crashing down during preparation for a second title run.
Shaquille O'Neal, who had waited eight seasons to finally stand atop the podium as a champion, earned the right to enjoy his summer. He had just finished possibly the greatest Finals series by any player in history, and felt that it was time to relax.
His sidekick, however, had a different mindset.
Having only taken four seasons to win his first championship, Kobe Bryant was eager to collect more. He would enter the summer of 2000 determined to work his way to being the best player in the NBA.
Better even than his teammate, Shaq.
The careers of the two Laker stars would split from one another during the 2000-2001 regular season. After four seasons of O'Neal as option one on offense, and Bryant as a clear number two, Kobe had become Shaq's equal as an offensive threat.
The power struggle between Bryant and O'Neal on offense, as well as the overwhelming pressure to repeat as champions, led to a subpar season for Los Angeles. The Lakers would finish 56-26 before beginning their epic run towards a repeat championship.
The run to the Finals of the 2000-2001 Los Angeles Lakers is possibly the most dominant in NBA history.
LA would sweep through Portland, Sacramento, and San Antonio to reach the NBA Finals with a postseason record of 11-0. The scorching move to the final round was keyed by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, with the pair averaging 28 points per game each.
Following this impressive streak, the Lakers would cement their place among the greatest teams ever in the Championship Round.
Game 1 (76ers win, 107-101 OT)
Statistics: 52 MIN, 7-22 FG, 0-0 3FG, 1-1 FT, 3 REB, 5 AST, 1 STL, 3 BLK, 6 TO, 15 PTS
In one of the most stunning upsets in NBA history, the Philadelphia 76ers ended a 19-game winning streak by the Los Angeles Lakers in the first game of the Finals. Shaquille O'Neal's massive 40 point, 20 rebound effort would be matched by season MVP Allen Iverson's 48 points.
Playing all but one minute of the overtime thriller, Kobe Bryant would struggle in every facet. After being constantly stripped of the ball (for six turnovers) on his way to the basket, Kobe would begin to settle for jumpshots.
Perhaps more damaging to LA was his failure to handle Iverson defensively in the first half. Iverson would score 30 of his 48 points in the first two quarters with Kobe guarding him.
Game 2 (Lakers win, 98-89)
Statistics: 47 MIN, 11-23 FG, 1-2 3FG, 8-8 FT, 8 REB, 6 AST, 2 STL, 2 BLK, 2 TO, 31 PTS
Coming off of perhaps his worst overall Finals effort, Kobe would turn in one of his best. Again playing all but one minute of the game, Bryant would score early and often in an attempt to forget his Game 1 performance.
LA would build a double-digit lead early, on the strength of Kobe's 12 first quarter points. Along with his game-high point total, Bryant would bounce back from his poor defensive effort in Game 1, holding Iverson to 10-29 shooting for only 23 points.
The Game 2 victory tied the series at 1-1, and displayed Bryant's ability to dominate at both ends of the court.
Game 3 (Lakers win, 96-91)
Statistics: 48 MIN, 13-30 FG, 0-2 3FG, 6-6 FT, 6 REB, 3 AST, 2 STL, 0 BLK, 3 TO, 32 PTS
Once again displaying supreme will and endurance, Kobe Bryant would play in every minute of Game 3.
This game was most notable as Kobe's return to his hometown of Philadelphia. Eager to show his ability in front of his family and friends, Bryant would shoot 10-16 in the opening half, including a stretch in which he scored on five straight offensive possessions.
Despite cooling off considerably in the second half, Kobe would help lead the Lakers to victory after Shaq fouled out with 2 minutes to play. Finding Robert Horry for multiple clutch baskets, Bryant, the game's leading scorer, would help to regain homecourt advantage in the series.
Game 4 (Lakers win, 100-86)
Statistics: 43 MIN, 6-13 FG, 0-2 3FG, 7-12 FT, 10 REB, 9 AST, 1 STL, 1 BLK, 4 TO, 19 PTS