After missing the NBA playoffs for the first time in his career, Kobe Bryant came back next season with a vengeance. He was determined to prove that he was enough to bring the Los Angeles Lakers a championship, without Shaquille O’Neal.
That wouldn’t be easy, Bryant soon found out.
The Lakers were led by basketball genius Phil Jackson, who returned to the team in hopes of bringing them back to postseason contention. The franchise was reeling from the Bryant/O’Neal breakup, Bryant’s sexual assault allegations and a sudden departure, then return of Jackson.
None of this mattered in the regular season, it turned out. Bryant went back to his regular offensive production, averaging 35.4 points per game, 5.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists in the 2005-06 season. The team ended the regular season with the eighth-best offensive rating and a 45-37 record.
Bryant’s team, including Luke Walton, Lamar Odom, Smush Parker and Andrew Bynum barely made the playoffs with a seventh seed and earned a first-round meeting with the juggernaut Phoenix Suns. Steve Nash was riding a high of league MVP the previous season and another one on the way.
The Lakers lost by five points in front of an electrified Phoenix home crowd in Game 1. Bryant tied the highest scorer with 22 points, but it wasn’t enough to silence the Suns.
Los Angeles responded with spirit, and they came through victorious in the next two meetings with the Suns, although each contest was closer than the last. When the Lakers suited up for the fourth game in the series, with a 2-1 lead over the Suns, they were out for blood.
Bryant defied expectations, with 22 points already on the board as he sunk a clean basket with less than a second left to force overtime. The Lakers refused to give the Suns even a second to recover.
Nash responded with finesse, as he used his speed on the court to put up a 3-pointer, but he became mixed up with Walton down the court, resulting in a jump ball. With 6.1 seconds remaining in overtime, Bryant ran after the tipped ball from Walton and planted himself at the top right corner of the key, undaunted by Phoenix big men Raja Bell and Boris Diaw.
Bryant sank one of his most clutch shots on April 30, 2006, over the Suns to give the Lakers their 3-1 lead. It would be their last win of the series, however, as the Suns would go on to bump Los Angeles out of the playoffs in seven games.
The champion that year would be the Miami Heat, led by no other than O’Neal.
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