Coming off of the thrilling conquest of the 2001-02 NBA Finals victory over the New Jersey Nets, the Los Angeles Lakers entered the season with back-to-back-to-back championships. With Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal leading the charge, Phil Jackson and the Lakers had cemented themselves as a dynasty, atop the NBA.
However, the Lakers perhaps got a little too confident entering the 2002-03 season, unprepared and perhaps caught off guard by the response from the other NBA teams. They began the season with a 5-11 record, coming out of the Thanksgiving break with a showdown on the road against the Memphis Grizzlies on Nov. 29, 2002.
O’Neal had missed the first five games of the season due to a foot surgery, meaning he was still getting accustomed to playing in the NBA again. At the same time, Bryant came in extremely aggressive, as the leading scoring option while O’Neal found his footing and made an impact in the game.
Bryant (20) and O’Neal (15) got the Lakers off to a hot start, but the Grizzlies would put together multiple double-digit runs to get back into the game. With just a 52-50 lead, the Grizzlies were able to get out and outscore the Lakers 25-24 to take a one-point lead into the fourth quarter.
Grizzlies head coach Hubie Brown stood as one of the more respected figures in the NBA, while second-year player Pau Gasol was still a young Spaniard bursting onto the scene. Teammate Jason Williams continued to scorch the Lakers, like he often did during his days with the Sacramento Kings.
Williams nailed a 3-pointer to give Memphis a 98-97 lead, leaving a final chance for the Lakers to win the game.
O’Neal was sent to the free throw line and knocked down one of two attempts to force the game into overtime. It was there that Bryant would take control, scoring eight points in overtime to help guide the Lakers to a 112-106 victory.
After the game, Jackson admitted that he had to slow Bryant down, as the shooting guard was getting carried away with his shot attempts on a spectacular night.
Bryant finished the game with 45 points on 18-for-35 shooting, to go along with six rebounds, five assists and two steals.
It was another memorable night for an eventual two-time scoring champion, setting the stage for a marvelous career, including an MVP award, five total championships and 18 All-Star appearances.
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