(Originally published on April 21, 2010)
Upon watching ESPN’s “The Association: The Los Angeles Lakers” special last Friday, I don’t know exactly what came over me, but I just felt overwhelmingly inspired to somehow express my excitement and expectations for the 2010 NBA Playoffs. Then I thought, what better way than to reflect on the past? Of course, you can’t think about all of the great moments in Laker’s playoff history without remembering awesome games and plays made by our very own iconic superstar, Kobe Bryant who just so happened to explode for 39 points in Game 2 against the Thunder last night.
I’m usually apprehensive to do any kind of “Top 10” lists because it’s honestly just so difficult to feel like your rankings are set in stone even in your own mind. I did shuffle this list around a bit as I was putting it together, but I am rather satisfied with the final 1-10.
This year’s NBA Playoffs are sure to have many amazing moments that will take our breath away and more than a fair share of those highlights will certainly come from courtesy of the Black Mamba. In the spirit of the best time of the year, I invite you to peruse my Top 10 Kobe Playoff Performances as we all look back and reminisce together about the best player on the planet, the Black Mamba, Kobe Bryant.
10. 2006 Western Conference Quarterfinals
Game #4 vs. Phoenix Suns: Now I know that this incredible performance by Kobe may be ranked quite low at number 10, but you can attribute that to the fact that we ultimately embarrassed ourselves in the 2006 Playoffs by forfeiting a 3-1 series lead against Steve Nash and the Suns. Still, the shot that the Mamba dazzled us with four years ago will replay in my sports memory bank for as long as I live.
Before we cover Kobe’s heroic final shot though, let’s first touch on the insane driving floater that he made in the last seconds of regulation after Nash had turned it over on the sideline. It’s one thing to take the ridiculously difficult shots that Kobe does, but to make them in the clutch? That’s what makes him one of the best performers this game has ever had the privilege of seeing.
While many of us do slam Smush for being one of the worst Lakers ever, he did force the aforementioned turnover by Steve Nash that gave Kobe the opportunity to score the bucket that forced overtime. In OT, Lamar and Luke trapped Nash again on the sideline and were able to knab a jump ball call. Luke then tipped the ball to Kobe and the Suns could have done nothing differently to change the outcome. The Black Mamba weaved his way to the right elbow inside the arc, one of his money spots, pulled up as time expired, and as Mike Breen says all the time, “BANG!”
Watching the clip below still gives me insane chills every time I see it. What I would give to have felt the explosion of the Staples Center faithful in person, oh man. There really is nothing like a buzzer-beating game-winner, especially in the NBA Playoffs. The post-season is where legends etch their name into the canals of basketball immortality.
Kobe’s shot against the Suns to put the Lakers up 3-1 was merely another bullet point in the Mamba’s legacy.
9. 2001 Western Conference Finals
Game #1 vs. San Antonio Spurs: In the franchise’s first repeat year in 13 years, the Lakers finished the regular season strong on an eight-game winning streak and completely embarrassed the Portland Trailblazers and the Sacramento Kings with a clean sheet 7-0 record in the 2001 NBA Playoffs heading into their date with the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs had clinched the best record in the West that year and we’re gearing up for a return trip to the NBA Finals. Of course, they would have to defeat our Lakers first.
The 2000-2001 season was really when the seams first started splitting in the relationship between Shaq and Kobe as well. However, Phil Jackson was able to keep his two megastars in check and the Lakers were rolling. Even so, the series against the Spurs that year for the West’s crown was anticipated as a potential slugfest between two of the NBA’s title contender heavyweights. Enter, Mamba.
Gregg Popovich undoubtedly reminded his Spurs to make sure they knew where Kobe was on the court at all times. With the twin towers patrolling the paint against Shaq, Phil definitely gave his young 22-year old superstar the green light in terms of creating offense for himself and the rest of the team – even more so as Kobe had been on an absolute tear in the earlier rounds.
I hate to be cliché here, but Kobe literally “set the tone” for how the series was going to play out as he went into kill-mode from the start and put on an absolute show in Game 1 to tune of 45 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 assists in Game 1. Just to remind you of his dominance against San Antonio that year, he averaged 33.25 ppg and spearheaded what was a humiliating sweep for the Spurs.
While Kobe did not have his best series against the Philadelphia 76ers and league MVP, Allen Iverson, in the NBA Finals, he did essentially carry the Lakers that year during the Western Conference Playoffs as the team capped a ludicrous 15-1 run in the post-season and repeated as league champs.
8. 2009 Western Conference Quarterfinals
Game #2 vs. Utah Jazz: Just when you think you’ve seen it all from the Black Mamba, he always manages to absolutely mesmerize all of us and remind the world that he’s simply a heartless killer come game time. After shooting a dismal 21% (5/24 FG) in a Game 3 loss against the Jazz in last year’s first-round, Kobe went into “I dare you to talk to me” mode and headed into Game 4 stone-faced, ready to pillage the mountain peaks of Utah.
The Mamba came out firing from the tip, scoring the Lakers’ first nine points, sending a clear message to Ronnie Brewer and coach Jerry Sloan that the whole city was in for one of those nights – the kind you akin to more of a sweat-drenched nightmare. If there was ever a complete in-game display of marvelous shooting, Game 4 featured it all as Kobe gave it to Brewer from all angles, pulling up going left and right, jabbing and drilling, backing down into his signature fadeaway. It simply didn’t matter who was guarding him because all he could see was a giant orange basket and he conducted a magnificent symphony that was a continuous loop of that sweet sound we all crave to hear, SWISH.
It’s games like this that prevent me from ever doubting Kobe. As it is widely agreed upon throughout the league, he is the best “mad player” in the game. To go 5 for 24 in a playoff loss and follow it up with 38 points on 16 of 24 shooting is a feat that very few players in the NBA, let alone the world, can do. I remember watching and just being speechless throughout as even ESPN’s Dan Schulman and Doris Burke sure sounded like they were having a great time as well.
7. Western Conference Semifinals 2000
Game #2 vs. Phoenix Suns: Throughout the years, we’ve all been privy to a bevy of Kobe Bryant playoff highlights. However, I have probably only seen Game 2 of the 2000 West Semis against the Phoenix Suns covered just once or twice. I’m not even sure how prevalent the game-winner Kobe made against a much younger Jason Kidd is in the memory of Laker fans. I mainly remember this game and the shot because…well…because I tried to emulate it at school in the days following. There, I admitted it.
Even though the Suns were no match for the much more stacked Lakers championship team that year, the tough double-clutch game-winning shot Kobe drained with two seconds to go was his first-ever playoff game-winner. I’d think it remains as a pretty special shot in the Mamba’s personal memory archive.
While I’d love to reflect a bit more and offer further insight into this game, I honestly just don’t recall all that much except for Kobe’s jumper. I just felt that this particular playoff performance deserved a little more tribute than it’s been given. Oh, and by the way, the shot is rather hard to reenact especially since I’m no dynamo with a basketball in my hands nor do I have ridiculous hang-time. I just like to imagine that I am.
6. 2009 NBA Finals
Game #1 vs Orlando Magic: As huge of a Kobe fan as I am, I’m also not irrational and will readily admit the fact that historically, the Mamba has not consistently filled it up in his first five NBA Finals appearances. While most of that can be lent to the fact that he had to play second fiddle to Shaq for the first four trips to the title round, the 2008 Finals against Boston still remains a forgettable series, especially for Kobe. Tom Thibodeau’s defense was masterfully executed by the Celtics as they kept him in check for the series with the exception of Game 3.
Given the Mamba’s individual resume in the NBA Finals, last year’s matchup with the Orlando Magic was an enormous test for him. Some may argue that Kobe earned Finals MVP honors by default, but I’d love to see those haters try to score 40 points in Game 1 of the NBA Finals and averaged 32 ppg in the series.
The jutting of the jaw was on full exposure as an incredibly determined Kobe Bryant took the court at Staples Center and delighted all of us with a performance that surely added another star to his already legendary NBA profile. Mikael Pietrus, who had notified the media that he was going to cease wearing the Nike Zoom Kobe IV while the Magic tussled with the Lakers for the title, was put through the Black Mamba’s very own Finals clinic. Kobe gave it to Orlando throughout the entire game and to show how hot he was, he drained a ridiculous pivot fadeaway right in Pietrus’ grill with the shot clock expiring, which left the Staples Center crowd gasping for air.
Anyone who dares to suggest that Game 1 of any series is not all that important, they obviously don’t understand the crucial significance of every single possession in the playoffs. Kobe clearly knows this as he just dominated the Magic in Game 1 and sent a resounding message that these Finals were ours to lose and by no means was he going to fail to reclaim the ring he had fought so hard and long for.
5. 2009 Western Conference Finals
Game #3 vs. Denver Nuggets: The master of response. Games 1 and 2 were hotly contested matches in last year’s Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets. Heading into the Pepsi Center for Game 3 with the series tied 1-1, there was no question that this swing-game had the potential to spell disaster if the Lakers had lost. Championship teams must have the ability to win and win big on the road. With a raucous crowd behind them, Chauncey and Carmelo were determined to spoil our title hopes on their home floor.
I’m sure the Nuggets didn’t fail to receive the memo, but a very driven and experienced Kobe Bryant was still on the other side and if Denver thought they were going to muscle us around and take control of the series with a 2-1 lead, they were sorely mistaken.
The Mamba played a complete game, orchestrating the offense at times and taking it upon himself to score big buckets when he had to. He really played in the flow of a tight back and forth battle, but he put his biggest stamp on the game with a little over one minute left with the Lakers down 95-93 and a potential 2-1 series deficit (with Game 4 in Denver) staring us in the face. Kobe dribbled along the left elbow above the arc with J.R. Smith closely guarding him, pulled up, and iced the Pepsi Center with a debilitating three to put the Lakers ahead for good. CLUTCH, as if we need reminding.
Obviously, the Lake Show went onto to defeat the Nuggets in six on the way to Kobe’s fourth NBA Championship, but I can only wonder what might have been had his dagger three not gone in. Actually, I don’t really want to think about it. Let’s just leave it at that.
4. 2008 Western Conference Finals
Game #5 vs. San Antonio Spurs: You don’t earn the reputation of being the “best closer in the game” without playing big when it matters the most. After spending four years as the unquestioned leader of the Lakers during which every last gram of his patience was tested enough for him to boldly request a trade, all that drama seemed like a distant thing of the past by late May. I know that the Mamba did himself no favors by going off on his rant, but come on, did anyone ever think that he would actually push it through and leave? Kobe is one of the most intense competitive forces in sports history and he was simply tired of losing. If anything, his bluff at an exodus finally forced Mitch Kupchak to really strap down and make major moves such as the deals to get Pau Gasol and Trevor Ariza to Los Angeles.
As soon as the acquisition of Boom Boom Pau was complete, there was no happier man in sports than Kobe Bryant and the Lakers went on a torrential run through the rest of the regular season and dominated the Nuggets and Jazz in the first two rounds of the post-season. Standing in the way of a fifth trip to the NBA Finals for Kobe was once again, the San Antonio Spurs. However, this time around, you had the feeling that we truly had the better team and would not let an aging Tim Duncan, a battered Manu Ginobili, and an old supporting cast deter us from having another shot at finishing as World Champions.
With a 3-1 series lead, the stage was scripted perfectly for Kobe and the Lake Show. Anticipating a Western Conference Championship, Mr. Clutch, Jerry West was even in attendance. This game holds a very special place in my heart because I am one of 20,000 or so Laker fans who can say that they were at the game! Realizing that Kobe’s career was approaching the twilight years, I bit the bullet and paid a stupid amount of money to go to the game. Needless to say, it was worth every last penny.
With the Lakers going down by as many as 17 points in the first half, the Staples Center crowd was growing impatient with the lackadaisical effort, but then Farmar sparked a 6-0 run all by himself late in the second quarter and pulled us back within seven by halftime (if my memory serves me right). Then it was all Kobe in the second half as he scored 17 of his 39 in the final stanza hitting tough jumpers in the lane over Tim Duncan’s fruitlessly outstretched arm. The game’s “best closer” had stepped hard on the Spurs’ throat and ousted them in just five games to reach the 2008 NBA Finals.
Like I said, this game is more than just TV memory as I remember the chills that squirmed down my spine as the final buzzer sounded and Jerry West presented the Lakers with the Western Conference Championship trophy. To experience that feeling again in person, I’d drop that money again in a heartbeat.
3. 2001 Western Conference Semifinals
Game #4 vs. Sacramento Kings: As I was reminiscing about the “rivalry” between the Lakers and Sacramento Kings, I actually realized that during the ShaKobe Dynasty era, the Lake Show swept Chris Webber and company two out of three consecutive playoff meetings. Only in that third year did the Kings push us to seven in the controversial series that blackballed ex-ref Tim Donaghy, claims was fixed. Regardless, sweeping two out of three straights series against the same team isn’t exactly what I would call a “rivalry”.
Still, back then, all Laker fans hated the Kings and all their cowbell ringing fans, but in 2001, Kobe made absolutely sure that Sacramento would have no chance at hindering the team from repeating as champs. Averaging 35 ppg for the series in the 2001 Western Conference Semis, the Mamba saved his best for last and he had already had a monster performance in Game 3 going for 36 points, 7 boards, and 4 dimes.
As fans back in L.A. had the brooms ready to go, Kobe unleashed a merciless 48 points and 16 rebounds while shooting 15 of 29 from the field, slamming the door on the Kings’ playoff hopes. The most memorable score from the game was definitely his drive to the basket and subsequent facial given to ex-Laker Vlade Divac who is mostly remembered for tipping the ball out to Big Shot Robert Horry in Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals.
To add even more to this storyline, Kobe had even flown back home to check on his wife Vanessa between Game 3 and 4 due to an illness that she had been dealing with. This game was a serious display of offensive dominance by a 22-year old Black Mamba and man, watching the highlight from nine years ago just makes me realize that there really is no substitute for youth. While Kobe obviously can’t drive as hard to the cup as he did back in his younger days, you can also see just how far he’s advanced his entire game and refined his skills. Ridiculous.
A young, exuberant, and raw-talent Kobe Bryant is always fun to watch though.
2. 2000 NBA Finals
Game #4 vs. Indiana Pacers: When I was 21, I was being young, reckless, and partying every weekend without a care in the world. I had yet to learn the value of hard work and earning your keep, lessons which I have subsequently learned. I mention this because in contrast, when Kobe was 21, he was a budding superstar that shouldered the burden of being dubbed the next Michael Jordan. And oh yeah, he was playing in the NBA Finals with the Los Angeles Lakers for a shot at his first championship.
After spraining his ankle rather severely just nine minutes into Game 2, Kobe had to sit out Game 3 in Indiana as the Lakers lost to the Pacers and the series looked to have a new face to it with the lead at just 2-1. To say the least, Game 4 was huge, especially with the 2-3-2 Finals format. We all remember that endearing image plastered all over the LA Time of Kobe being piggybacked by Shaq as they entered Conseco Fieldhouse for Game 4. The Diesel must have known that the team would need every single bit of Kobe to take a stranglehold of the series and go up 3-1.
I really look at this specific game as the true first chapter to the Mamba’s playoff legacy. The game was an intense contest as the Lakers and Pacers played to a draw at the end of regulation, but in overtime, the unthinkable happened – Shaq was called for his sixth foul and had to leave the game. With the pressure on, no one played bigger in the extra period than Kobe, scoring eight of the team’s 16 points and booking the game-winning basket on a put-back underneath the bucket.
To think back to that moment ten years ago as I watched Game 4 in my room, I can recall the awe that I felt with much clarity. After one particular step-back jumper right in Reggie Miller’s face, Kobe jogged back towards the Laker bench grimacing and gesturing to himself, “simmer down a bit”, reminding himself to stay composed. The poise and clutch execution that he displayed in this game to put the Lakers up 3-1, injured ankle and all, was the true tell-tale sign that Kobe Bryant was going to do incredibly special things with the Lakers for a long, long time.
1. 2009 NBA Finals
Game #5 vs Orlando Magic: I do realize that Game 5 against the Magic last year was a total team effort victory that clinched the franchise’s 15th NBA title. However, this game is #1 in my mind mainly due to the fact that it exercised the proverbial demons that had haunted Kobe in the four seasons since we had traded away Shaq. All the talk, all the hating, and all the frustrations had finally been spackled over and given a fresh coat of Purple and Gold paint.
Kobe indeed showed up big in Game 5 as he scored 30 points on 10 of 23 shooting and played as almost flawless game as he made sure the series was not going to be extended any longer. Aside from the numbers, Kobe’s performance in this game impressed me immensely because instead of succumbing to the excitement and angst of potentially clinching his painfully sought-after fourth ring, he compartmentalized all of that and focused on execution. The Mamba led the Lakers that night in a very complete team game and left no room for doubt. There would be no Game 6 celebration at the Staples Center and that was just fine. Kobe wanted the title pronto.
Legends step it up that much more when all the chips are laid out on the table and while his career is grudgingly closing in on the end, Kobe the Black Mamba Bryant will have plenty more playoff performances that will leave us all shuffling more “Top 10” lists around with difficulty.