April 16, 2007 --
No, that’s not a recorded series of highway speed limit signs. As unbelievable as it may seem, those are Kobe Bryant’s point totals in the four-game stretch from March 16-23. For one week, Kobe captivated NBA fans with a one-man scoring spree that pushed him into MVP consideration and cemented his status as the best scorer in the game.
Now, it can probably be agreed upon by most basketball observers that there is no more divisive subject in the league today than Kobe. Or “The Black Mamba.” Or KB24. However you want to refer to him, there are really only two schools of thought regarding this man. Some feel he is by far the best player in the league, one who has unmatched ability to take over a game and carry his team. Others feel he is a ball hog with no conscience or concept of team basketball. There is no in between, no give-and-take. An argument among fans regarding Kobe can get about as heated as an L.A. rooftop in August.
However, for that one week, all arguments seemed to stop. Fans just sat back and watched the brilliance. This man was willing his team to victories and nobody on the opposition could stop him. Not only that, but he did it in a way that was oddly familiar to us.
Let’s go back for a moment and put the situation in perspective. On March 11, the Lakers were shellacked by the Mavs, 108-72. They then had three days off to stew about that embarrassing defeat. On March 15, L.A. was beaten soundly by the Nuggets, 113-86. It was the team’s seventh consecutive loss, marking the longest losing streak of coach Phil Jackson’s career. In two games they had been outscored by 63 combined points. It was the absolute low point of the season for L.A.
So what happens in Hollywood when the good guys are in trouble? A hero emerges. You can almost picture Kobe sitting at his locker after the seventh straight defeat, towel draped over his head, staring at the floor in utter confusion. It was at this moment when he made a decision.
This was NOT going to happen again.
So the man some love to cheer and some love to jeer evolved into a superhero. The great thing was that we never knew it was coming. Unlike the movies, there was no Bat-Signal. No conveniently placed phone booth. No dramatic musical sequence to indicate a change in emotion. No, this was just a great basketball player who got fed up with losing.
The Portland Trail Blazers were the unlucky, unsuspecting first victim. Kobe had a solid 32 points entering the fourth quarter of the tie ballgame. In the fourth quarter, the Lakers scored 30 points. Actually, let me rephrase that – Kobe Bryant had 24 points in that fourth quarter, including a pair of free throws and a running jumper that got his team into overtime. He then scored nine of the Lakers’ 18 points in OT to put the game away.
Ladies and gentlemen, we had officially entered Act II.
Here were the Lakers, losers of seven straight and on the brink of number eight to a 26-38 team in the embryonic stages of a rebuilding effort. Then Kobe scored 33 points in the final 17 minutes of action. He put the team on his back and carried them to safety. The team, the analysts, the fans all grabbed on and didn’t let go.
They held on as he dropped 50 on the Timberwolves. They held on tighter as he poured in 60 against the Grizzlies. Their knuckles turned white as he again hit the half-century mark against the Hornets.
Four games, four victories, 225 points scored. It wasn’t as if Kobe was getting his points purely based on volume, either. In those four games he shot 54 percent (76-of-140) from the field, 52 percent (17-of-33) from downtown and 93 percent (56-of-60) from the charity stripe. It seems almost counterintuitive to say, but he was actually averaging an efficient 56.3 points per game.
He had single-handedly turned the Lakers’ season around and made them a contender again. He had captivated the city, the league, the basketball world in the only way he could think of. He had put himself on yet another level few have ever reached.
How few? Well, only three other players in league history have ever scored 50 points in three consecutive games. Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Michael Jordan are the other names that Kobe cozied up to during his run. His four straight 50+ games ranks as the second-best streak of all-time, behind only Chamberlain's ridiculous seven in a row.
You see, it’s never easy to score 50 points in an NBA basketball game, but it happens from time to time for players with much less ability than Kobe. Just ask Tony Delk, Charles Smith or Willie Burton. But when you are a superstar of Kobe's status, the opposition’s sole defensive game plan when you step on the floor is to harass and, ultimately, stop you. Kobe might as well walk onto the court with a bull's-eye on his jersey. Everyone knows where he is at all times.
So to score at least 50 points in four consecutive games under those circumstances is nothing short of spectacular. Basketball isn’t designed for one player to dominate five. Teams are allowed to change matchups, change schemes, change defenses during the course of a game. But when the perfect mix of talent, desire and motivation came together during that magical week in March, no defensive adjustment had a chance to succeed.
Seeing one man dominate the way Kobe did during his four-game audition for the lead in the next “Superman” installment will surely be one of the most lasting memories of the 2006-07 regular season.
And just remember, it is Hollywood. A sequel is always in the works.