To say that there are not enough superlatives to describe Kobe Bryant would be a gross understatement, especially considering the season that he’s just doused with a fifth championship champagne bath. More than the stats, which were generally held to his usual standard (27.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 5.0 apg reg. season; 29.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 5.5 apg playoffs), what makes the 2009-2010 campaign stand out far above the rest is the fact that Kobe elevated his almost supernatural ability to suppress pain and vigorously focus on the task at hand – winning ball games. The finger, knee and ankle were merely the ailments that received the most media coverage, but there surely has to have been a myriad of other nagging injuries that had to be physically conquered in order to remain the Lakers’ key cog in the pursuit of his fifth ring.
As for the regular season, at times, it felt like a straight-to-DVD movie that you’re forced to watch in the late hours of a Saturday night because there’s just nothing else that appeases your brain. Don’t misunderstand, watching Kobe sink six game winners felt like getting exactly what you wanted on Christmas as a kid, but let’s be honest, he went 0 for 2 this year against LeBron and the games he couldn’t quite pull out for us (Toronto, Orlando, Miami) left a taste in our mouths that was just as bitter as his buzzer buckets were sweet. However, at no point did the Mamba play to attain regular season supremacy. He was doing all he could to make sure the Lakers would be ready to defend their crown when the time came.
Once the NBA Playoffs kicked off, nothing that occurred in the previous six or so months mattered to Kobe and injuried or not, nothing short of severing an arm and a leg was going to stop him. Until Game 5 against the Thunder, prior to which he had the now widely famous knee drain, the Mamba was clearly laboring on that bum right knee to which he even attested that he was “playing on one leg”. However, from Game 6 onwards, the rest of the West never stood a chance. Kobe proceeded to score 30 or more points in 11 of the next 12 games, a period during which his team ousted the Thunder on the road in Game 6, swept the Jazz, defeated the Phoenix Suns in six and resoundingly beat down the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. More impressively, during that 12-game stretch, he shot a blistering 51% from the field and we will never forget the merciless clutch daggers that he nailed into the fading heart of Steve Nash’s Suns to clinch the West, capping off a run that is widely considered the best basketball of his career.
The NBA Finals really saw Kobe turn up his defensive intensity to a level that we’ve really never seen before. We all know that he takes immense pride in locking down his assignment if need be as was the case with Russell Westbrook in the OKC series, but against Boston, not enough credit has been given to his leadership as anchor of the Lakers’ team defense. Whether it was blocking Tony Allen and Kendrick Perkins right at the rim or forcing Kevin Garnett into crucial multiple turnovers on the road at TD Garden in Game 3, the Mamba really scraped the marrow of his bones to muster up the energy to play ferociously on both sides of the ball. Shots however, were hard earned and often missed against Boston’s swarming defense, thereby further exhausting his body. Even through an offensively horrendous Game 7, Kobe never wavered on the defensive end as he put the onus on himself to box out and rip down 15 boards, a critical element to victory given the fact that every team that won the battle on the glass won the game in the Finals.
All things considered, especially the injuries he played through, I’ve got to award Kobe with a grade of A-. This most recent postseason run to the NBA title was really captivating. While the rest of the basketball world was calling him “old” and “over the hill”, we Laker fans all knew that the Black Mamba had plenty of venom left to disperse.
Next: Ron Artest….