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.

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