Monday, February 2, 2009

Bryant's 61 Reminds Us Of His Greatness

Just when I thought that I couldn't possibly write any more words, when I thought I was burned out after producing three full-length articles in a week and wouldn't even try to muster another one for at least another week, Kobe Bryant dropped 61 points on the Knicks in New York and left me no choice.

It was the most ever scored at Madison Square Garden, surpassing the 60 former 'Bocker great Bernard King scored there on Christmas Day, 1984 (when he was maybe one of the top three players alive, along with Magic and Bird).

In a season in which LeBron James has received more press attention and admiration, surpassed him in the eyes of many as the game's best player, and been touted as the man who will succeed him as league MVP, it only took one mind-boggling performance for Kobe Bryant to remind everyone that he's still Kobe Freaking Bryant and he hasn't gone anywhere, and won't be going anywhere soon.

Known for his icy on-court intensity, Mr. Bryant looked as serious and focused on this night as he has during any single game of his brilliant, 13-year career. Earlier Monday it was announced that center Andrew Bynum would miss two to three months with (another) serious knee injury. After his instantly classic performance Bryant explained that he wanted to make sure his team didn't come out flat against the Knicks as a result of the bad news.

He succeeded, scoring 18 of Los Angeles' 31 first quarter points, as I planned a column for later in the week on Bryant's greatness. Then he scored 16 more in the second period as the Lakers took an 11-point halftime lead. After 12 more in the third and 15 in the fourth, Bryant had set a new Garden record, with a point total that will remind all New Yorkers of a deceased Yankee who also set a mark, and had a career, defined by the number 61 (although of course that record has now fallen).

And I had no choice but to write that article now.

Most great, great NBA players have been content with allowing their natural abilities to decline, watching the younger generation of superstars assume their positions, and fading into retirement satisfied with their accomplishments, then waiting five years before accepting their induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall-of-Fame.

Not men like Bryant and Michael Jordan, maniacally competitive athletes inherently obsessed with being the best. Jordan reshaped his game as he hit his mid-30s, becoming a dead-eye jump shooter and perhaps the game's all-time deadliest guard post player, relying on his textbook fundamentals and supreme basketball intelligence to combat the fact that he was no longer an acrobat. All of this was done in an intelligent, calculated effort to maintain his eminence.

Similarly, Bryant is now 30 and as a result of his early entry into the league and the large number of postseason games he has played in, possesses more mileage than the average player that age. And so, while still a very gifted athlete, Bryant is no longer quite the explosive leaper he once was. Furthermore, and maybe even more importantly, Bryant realizes that aggressively attacking the basket will only add to the wear and tear on his body and make him more easily fatigued later on down the line.

So Bryant, like Jordan before him, has made the jump shot his best friend, and we all wish we had best friend's like Kobe Bryant's jump shot. It has become so accurate that he is currently shooting the best floor percentage of his career (48 percent). It was on full display in Gotham, as he sliced the Knicks to pieces with a barrage of short and mid-range jumpers. He shot 19-of-31 overall, including 3-of-6 from deep, and made all 20 of his free throws.

His footwork and ballhandling is flawless, and his ingenuity is unmatched, so he can create an opportunity for a shot, as well as the space he needs to get off a good look, at any time. The smartest player in the league, Bryant is canny as hell and always keeps a defender off-balance. And so when the occasion occurs, he'll still use his explosive first step to drive past his defender and to the hoop. He even moves well without the ball.

Kobe is playing a game of cat and mouse on the basketball court, and on this night, like virtually every other, he was Jerry and the man guarding him (most notably Wilson Chandler, who was the most scorched) was Tom.

Along the way, Bryant surpassed MJ's visiting player record of 55. It was his 25th career 50+ point game, moving him within five of Jordan's 30 for second most all-time (behind Wilt Chamberlain's 6,000, or however many he had). One can only wonder how many Bryant would have if he hadn't spent eight seasons sharing shots with Shaq.

It was also the fifth sixty point game of his career (all coming in the last three seasons).

He may be the best pure scorer ever, and he's a better player than he's ever been.

Monday night, he redirected our attention to his greatness.

LeBron plays there Wednesday night.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Night To Remember

The query is sure to be thrown around.

Was that the best Super Bowl game ever played?

If it wasn't definitively, an argument can be made that it definitively was, and at the very least, it was as good as any ever.

Cardinals-Steelers couldn't have matched Giants-Patriots in terms of historical scope, even if the long suffering Cards had won. Super Bowl XLII had more at stake. But in terms of sheer, pound-for-pound excitement, it can't possibly be surpassed. It was a spectacle of a football game to behold.

It had it all.

We had Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald giving heroic performances in a crushing loss, the Cardinals quarterback earning his Canton bust despite the outcome, the Cardinals receiver taking over the fourth quarter as only he and a handful of receivers in the history of the league could.

But then we had MVP Santonio Holmes matching Fitzgerald step-for-step, catching four passes on the Steelers' game-winning drive, including the touchdown, then celebrating by mimicking LeBron James' famous pre-game ritual (the gesture lost on Madden and Michael's).

Before Sunday's tipoff, anybody who said that Ben Roethlisberger wasn't a great quarterback was merely mistaken; now, they just look foolish (more on this in a second).

We had a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown, a ton of penalites (none of which proved to be too costly), an improbable rally by the underdog that sent one fan base into a temporary catatonic state, followed by an immediate response that will permanently damage another.

My heart was pounding and my city doesn't even have a professional football team; for Cardinals and Giants fans the unfolding drama must have been nearly unbearable.

Mixed in between we even had a few memorable commercials.

Warner has now recorded the top-3 single-game passage yardage performances in SB history. He has led three teams to the Big Game, one of them the NFL's version of the Los Angeles Clippers, and he nearly won it for them. In this one, Warner finished 31-of-43 for 377 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 1 interception, rallied his team back from a 20-7 fourth quarter deficit against the league's best defense, and cemented his place in the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame.

His playmate Fitzgerald provided further proof to the adage that you can't keep a good man down for long, dominating the fourth quarter after being held in check for the first three. His line: 7 catches for 127 yards and two scores, both of them in the final frame. We may call him the best football player alive.


My favorite commercials of the night:

3. David Abernathy - At childbirth, David congratulates the doctor on a perfect delivery with a handshake (among other impressive feats, but he still can't decide on a car any better than the rest of us).

2. Pepsi Max: I'm Good - No matter what unfortunate accident befalls man - whether it be getting hit with a backswing, having a bowling ball dropped on their head, or being electrocuted and ejected from the top of a ladder and violently slammed off the side of a truck - they can take it. What they couldn't take is "the taste of diet Cola - until now."

1. E*Trade: Talking Baby - You know, the business savvy (not to mention absoultely adorable) little baby at the computer who gives investment tips. This time he's joined by a friend, who blesses us with a little rendition of the song "Broken Wings," which was once sampled on this posthumous Tupac track.

Time in.

We all knew that Holmes was a very good young receiver and dangerous deep threat, but I, for one, had no idea he was capable of taking over the last three minutes of the Super Bowl. 9 catches for 131 yards and the season's winning touchdown reception. Holmes may never be as dominant, at least on a consistent basis, as he was in the pressure-cooker moments of Sunday night's affair, but for at least one evening he was legendary.

On NBC's pre-game telecast, guest analyst Rodney Harrison stated that Roethlisberger was not a great quarterback but a great football, which could possibly be interpreted as a backhanded compliment. But John Elway wasn't really a great quarterback, either, in the pocket-passer sense - at least not as a young player, as all of his best pure throwing seasons came after the age of 32).

And besides, everyone seems to be ignoring a strong mitigating factor in the whole "Ben not that really that good," "Ben game-manager," and "Ben Troy Aikman in black and yellow" (another back-handed compliment) case: in 2007, Ben threw for 32 touchdowns and only 11 picks, for a stellar by any standard 104.1 QB rating.

When you add in the fact that he just won his second Super Bowl before the age of 27 by leading his team downfield at the end of the game in a Tom Brady-like manner (though not as stoically cool), it's safe to say that not only is he a great football player, but a great quarterback as well.

When Arizona made their unlikely comeback to take the lead in the fourth, I thought to myself that maybe I was right, that the Cards, underdogs four weeks in a row, really were a team of destiny.

But how many times have we seen a team make a furious rally to gain the lead in the fourth quarter of a football ballgame, only for the other team to respond on the ensuing drive and win in the end, anyway?

We saw it just two weeks ago, in the NFC Championship Game, with the Cardinals on the other end of the equation.

And one of the best game's of this past college football season was Texas-Texas Tech, with Texas gamely fighting back against Tech, getting the lead, then getting their hearts ripped out in the end.

I was prepared for either scenario to be the final story of the game. Obviously, it was the latter.

Now, the night belongs to history.

It was one to remember.