Sunday, May 30, 2010

Kobe's Greatest Playoff Series'

Following the Lakers' closeout victory of the Suns in the Western Conference Finals Saturday night, Bill Simmons tweeted: "Great series by Kobe. One of his best." Which got me to thinking - what are Kobe's greatest postseason series performances? Here's my take - listed in chronological order:

2001 Western Conference Semifinals versus Kings: 4 gms, 43.3 mpg, 35.0 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.25 spg, .473 fg%. Lakers win 4-0.

On the way to an all-time NBA-best 15-1 postseason record, the Lakers swept Portland in the first round before taking on a Kings team that had won a (then) team-record 55 games during the regular season (only one less than Los Angeles). After taking a backseat to Shaq during the first two games as L.A. protected their home court (behind a prime Diesel's 44-21 and 43-20 showings), Bryant played the lead in Sacramento. He scored 36 in Game 3 as L.A. took a commanding 3-0 series lead, and then (in what Simmons last year called Bryant's best single playoff game performance) went off for 48 points and 16 rebounds in leading L.A. to their second consecutive sweep. The game was highlighted by Bryant's sick crossover on Doug Christie before serving up a nasty facial on Vlade Divac.

2001 Western Conference Finals versus Spurs: 4 gms, 42.0 mpg, 33.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 7.0 apg, 1.5 spg, .514 fg%. Lakers win 4-0.

In the very next series the Lakers took on a Spurs team that had finished with the league's best regular season mark (58-24). Bryant followed up his 48-16 in the closeout of the Sacramento series with a 45 point, 10 rebound performance in Game 1 against the Spurs, as the Lakers took the homecourt advantage. In case you're scoring at home, that's a total of 93 points and 26 rebounds (by a guard, no less) in consecutive road playoff games. He scored 28 in Game 2, including a back-breaking three late (followed by a Derek Fisher dagger from behind the arc, as L.A. broke San Antonio's spirits by taking a 2-0 lead heading to the Staples Center. By the time the series reached Los Angeles the Spurs had already surrendered mentally, and the Lakers proceeded to stomp them into the ground, winning by 39 in Game 3 as Bryant went for 36-9-8, and 29 in Game 4 as he went for 24 points and 11 assists. The Lakers had run their record to a perfect 11-0 to start the playoffs, and only an inspired effort by a gutsy Allen Iverson-led Sixers team in Game 1 of the Finals would keep L.A. from becoming the first NBA team to sweep through an entire postseason.

2008 Western Conference Semifinals versus Jazz: 6 gms, 41.3 mpg, 33.2 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 7.2 apg, .491 fg%. Lakers win 4-2.

It was during the first three rounds of this postseason that I believe Bryant played not only the best all-around ball of his career, but achieved a level of basketball mastery no player ever had before. This series is kind of inconspicuous compared to the others on the list, but Bryant was brilliant. Only back spasms suffered during Game 3 managed to slow Bryant as the Lakers ousted Utah on the way to our next series.

2008 Western Conference Finals versus Spurs: 5 gms, 40.4 mpg, 29.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.6 spg, .533 fg%. Lakers win 4-1.

This series featured the least eye-popping statistical output from Bryant of the performances on the list. But the thing that stood out about this one was the control Bryant displayed. He picked his spots beautifully and literally scored whenever he wanted - saving his best offensive production for the final period, of course. It was totally arbitrary. In Game 1 he scored two points in the first half - followed by eleven in the third and fourteen in the fourth. In Game 5 he scored 13 in the first half - then nine in the third and seventeen in the fourth to close out the series. At the time, I compared Bryant to a person who had mastered a video game.

The Celtics would shut Bryant down in the Finals, denying him a fourth title in the process, but I'll never forget the level he reached for the six or so weeks before they did.

2009 Western Conference Finals versus Nuggets: 6 gms, 34.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 6.2 apg, 1.5 spg, .481 fg%. Lakers win 4-2.

Following a seven-game series with a gritty Rockets team that hassled Bryant with Shane Battier and a terrific team defense, the Lakers were met by a tough and talented Nuggets club trying to prevent them from making a second straight Finals appearance. On a podcast with Simmons,'s J.A. Adande (who has followed Bryant the player's entire career) noted that he heard Bryant admit to being tired for the first time ever. Finally, Bryant's body language was showing effects of the considerable mileage of a long career of big minutes and deep playoff runs - a matter complicated by a physical Nuggets team that beat him up with multiple defenders and a strong help defense that met him at every turn.

Which is what made Bryant's performance in the series all the more impressive. After winning a hard-fought Game 1 in which Bryant scored 40 points, the Lakers lost the home court advantage in Game 2, only to regain it in Game 3 behind 41 more from the Black Mamba. Following the latter effort, Bryant conducted the right-after-the-game interview bent over, tugging on his shorts, barely even able to catch his breath. In the closeout in Game 6, Bryant scored 35 points on 12-of-20 shooting, grabbed six boards and handed out 10 assists - Simmons called it the second best playoff game of Kobe's career.

In the Finals the Lakers beat the Magic in five, and Bryant cemented his legacy by winning a fourth title.

Western Conference Finals versus Suns: 6 gms, 41.7 mpg, 33.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 8.3 apg, .521 fg%. Lakers win 4-2.

The Suns were game, but the Lakers were better and now find themselves heading to the NBA Finals for the third year in a row. Bryant was amazing in the series. He scored at least 30 points in all but one game - and in that one game he handed out a career playoff-high 13 assists. In total he had three double-digit assist games, and dished out nine in the dramatic Game 5 win (which will forever be known as The Artest Game). His jump shot was simply unbelievable - he made 19 threes and at times it seemed he couldn't miss. As is his custom, he made a lot of tough ones - most notably the last shot he made, in the clinching Game 6, a long two over a perfectly defending Grant Hill, right in front of Alvin Gentry on the Phoenix sideline. Then he turned to Gentry and gave him a little pat on the butt before spreading his arms and making like an airplane on the way back to the L.A. bench.

If Kobe can have another great series, this time against the Celtics in the Finals, he will likely win a fifth world title. Here's hoping I can add another series to this list in a few weeks.