Kobe's 61 at MSG: Lakers - Knicks Retro Running Diary

On the biggest basketball stage in the world, at New York City’s Madison Square Garden on Feb. 2, 2009, Kobe Bryant’s star shone as brightly as any had before.

With myriad advanced moves, contested jumpers, explosive dunks, and-1’s and free throws, he set a scoring record* at the ‘Mecca of Basketball’ with an incandescent 61 points, as the Basketball Gods looked on, collectively applauding.
*Later broken by Carmelo Anthony on Jan. 24, 2014 (62).

If that were the only story of the evening, it would have been enough to remember one of the great offensive assaults on a road NBA opponent. And yet, there was so much more that went into an evening that reset a tone that L.A. would ultimately ride to the championship in June, if you'll allow a reflection back on what was going on with the team at that moment.

So, reflecting back on titles won years later, it’s easy to take them for granted … yup, the Lakers won back-to-back chips in 2009 and 2010 ... no problem! Right?

They did have the best team, the best player (Kobe), the best supporting star (Pau Gasol), the best sixth man (Lamar Odom) and the best coach (Phil Jackson) … at least in my opinion. But championships are so, so far from guaranteed.

I came to the Lakers in October of 2008, fresh of watching the difficult 2008 Finals loss to Boston, quite pumped that the team I was about to cover had the best chance at winning it all. One reason for that perception was that the Lakers were getting Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza back from injury: neither had played against the Celtics in the Finals, and they were sorely missed.

They were mad, and they were ready. Led by Kobe’s constantly-burning fire, they started the season 7-0. Then 14-1 … 21-3 … 27-5 … and by Jan. 31, they were an NBA-best 37-9*.
*LeBron’s Cavs were 36-9.

But in that 37th victory, their big center, playing his best month of basketball in months, went down once again. Bynum had been hurt at Memphis when Kobe crashed into his leg, Andrew crumpling to the ground, and later learning that he’d torn the MCL in his right knee. Bynum was coming off his best month of the season, when he averaged 17.3 points on 58.9 percent shooting with 7.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 30 minutes per game. It was a huge blow mentally to Bynum and the Lakers, as he’d hurt his left knee the prior year, also in January, also against Memphis, which ended his season and kept him out of the playoffs entirely. There was immediate optimism that he’d be able to return for this postseason and that he wouldn’t need surgery, but there was no guarantee.

When I said it was a huge blow mentally, I should have clarified that Kobe can’t be included in that line of thinking.

Because in the next game, two nights later at MSG, he let his teammates, and his opponents, know that L.A.’s championship destiny would not be changed.

Starting for the Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe, Luke Walton, Odom and Gasol; New York: Chris Duhon, Quentin Richardson, David Lee, Al Harrington and Jared Jeffries.

11:15: Kobe’s first field goal of the evening was a long pull-up two off the dribble that never had a chance of missing the net. On the next trip down, he pulled up for a wing three right in front of the Lakers bench. He was all business right away. Not a wasted glance. Not an inefficient movement.

9:49: Then on the next trip, Bryant buried another deep J in Richardson’s face, and LAL led 8-4. Meanwhile, the cameras cut over to a smiling Bynum on the bench, his grin almost saying, “Kobe’s got this,” not just talking about that night.

6:34: The Knicks didn’t have a good matchup for Kobe – not that many teams did – and he continued to simply rise right over the top of the sturdy Q-Rich. Kobe had 13 in the first six minutes of action on 5 of 7 FG’s, plus an assist to Pau, who was on his way to 12 1st Q points of his own.

2:50: Gasol’s and-1 assured that he and Kobe combined for 23 of LAL’s 24 points, as they led by 19, with NYK hanging in due to some decent bench play from Nate Robinson, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler. Mike D’Antoni was the new Knicks coach, and he had them playing small ball … and that didn’t work very well against Gasol, who was abusing Lee/Harrington/whoever inside.

0:35.4: Bryant drilled his second triple of the 1st Q to reach 18 points, putting LAL up 31-26. His glare was in full prominence, this time after Lee got switched out onto him, and he danced his way into an easy pull-up.

10:13: Trevor Ariza had an emphatic transition dunk off Jordan Farmar’s dish back when Ariza was still coming off the bench, as either Walton (34 starts) or Vladimir Radmanovic (28) were often in there at SF. Farmar hit a pair of 3’s in the game, and Ariza was an impressive 6 for 9 towards 15 points, with the rest of bench going scoreless in limited minutes. But when Kobe returned at the 7:24 mark, LAL’s lead was down to one at 40-39.

7:05: I guess the rest didn’t cool Kobe off! He immediately drained a 3, then a 19-footer on the next trip down to make it 45-19, reaching 23 points. He had it all working so beautifully, and the Garden crowd – not to mention me up in press row – was fully enamored.

5:50: Here was the moment where the New York (and many Lakers fans, in fairness) rose in awe for the first time, when Kobe drilled another J, then dunked in transition on the next trip with two hands to get to 27 points on 10 for 14 FG’s, including four straight since returning to the game.

0:44.2: I’ve heard, and participated in, so many debates about the tough shots Kobe took, which on this night were going in, and how they measured up in the analytics area. One of the points I always tried to make is that Kobe was always about improving his skill set, and figuring out the shots he’d need to hit to win tough games in tough moments. And so, he’d miss a lot of contested shots in the regular season, but by the time the playoffs came around and those were the only shots available, nobody had more experience taking those kind of looks. There’s a reason that he’s a career 44.7 percent shooter in the regular season (and the post-Achilles tear numbers pulled that down) and a 44.8 percent shooter in the postseason. Most players see their FG percentage drop in the postseason, but not Kobe. The tough shot he made before halftime was an and-1 layup through Chandler and Harrington, which gave him 34 on 13 of 20 FG’s, 3 of 5 3’s and 5 of 5 FT’s, and LAL led 65-54 at the half. Bryant heard “vociferous” MVP chants (Walt Frazier’s word on the Knicks broadcast) during the and-1 FT.

10:51 The Knicks came out of halftime focusing all their attention on Kobe, sending a second defender his way the moment he crossed the 3-point line, and LAL came out pretty flat when pushed out of what they’d been doing. The Knicks capitalized with a 7-0 run to trim the lead to four at 65-61, before Odom’s dunk off Pau’s dish stopped the bleeding. Kobe’s first FGA came at the 8:34 mark, when he pulled up in semi transition for a missed three before the double could come.

7:02: Kobe got cooking moments later, with a runner and a short J coming after he manipulated his way past the initial NYK defense. Then he found Pau when Lee left Gasol wide open to trap Kobe, Pau’s two FT’s making it 80-71, restoring the breathing room.

5:31: Kobe reached 40 points at the FT line after a beautiful pass from Luke came in a textbook triangle setting, when he popped to the elbow, then quickly found a cutting Kobe get to the rim. This was the 95th time in his career to that point that Bryant scored at least 40 … he would finish with 122, of course capped by the 60-point finale.

1:39: My goodness … Kobe’s 45th and 46th points came as he hung in the air for an extra beat through the paint after a great cut was rewarded by Pau with a pass.

1:22: Speaking of Pau … he put back a Farmar miss in transition with a dunk to continue his fantastic game. Kobe’s 61 definitely overshadowed a ridiculous game from Gasol, who’d finish with 31 points on 12 of 17 FG’s, 14 rebounds, five assists and two blocks in 41 minutes, for a +20. Farmar would add a three in the final minute to put LAL up 96-86 heading into the fourth.

9:18: A powerful one-handed put-back slam from Ariza off a missed Vujacic jumper put LAL up 13, and showed Phil yet again that Trevor would be his best option as the starting SF moving forward, the only player on the roster who had both the overall athleticism and ability to hit shots at that position. He’d end up starting 20 regular season games, and all 23 postseason games.

7:31: Kobe immediately canned a jumper upon returning to the action. His 12 points in the third quarter were, believe it or not, his fewest in any quarter (18, 16, 12, 15).

6:05: The first time (Knicks PXP voice) Mike Breen mentioned Michael Jordan’s 55-point record at MSG (in the 45 jersey, in his 5th game back from retirement) came as Kobe hit the 50-point mark at the FT line, where he’d march nine straight times up until the 3:56 mark, passing his idol after getting Wilson Chandler to bite on a bunch of pump fakes. LAL were up 119-100.

3:24: Perhaps the signature highlight of Kobe’s offensive display came as he drove into the middle of the paint, and picked up his dribble, sending Chandler flying with a shot fake. Bryant executed a full pivot to his left, going 360 degrees, before rising for a short jumper. His footwork was like watching Picasso paint, Tiger drive, or Griffey, Jr. swing.

2:32: The MSG scoring record came at the FT line. He’d finish with the 61 point on an efficient 19 of 31 FG’s, 3 of 6 3’s and 20 of 20 FT’s. The New York crowd rose to its feet for a standing ovation that meant a lot to Kobe, and serenaded him with an “MVP” chant, that finally drew a smile for the first time from a previously-all-business Black Mamba. Do you remember who checked in to replace him? Yup … Sun Yue!!!

0:00: And so, the Lakers as a group came into that game uncertain about what would happen moving forward after watching Bynum go down in a heep.

But in 48 minutes of sheer brilliance, Kobe Bryant let them know they need not worry. He had it covered.