It is still hard to believe one of the NBA’s all-time greats is gone, but with every tear shed came a moment of remembrance, for everything brilliant that Kobe Bean Bryant achieved.
There is genuinely too much to sift through, too much to consider in order to determine the most impressive and monumental playoff moments in Bryant’s career.
Nevertheless, I have done my best. Here is a look at his five best playoff moments.
That ‘oop – A comeback to remember in game seven of the 2000 Western Conference finals, against the Portland Trail Blazers
2000 was the first time we truly saw ‘Shaq and Kobe’ at their very best on the biggest stage. In Phil Jackson’s first season as coach, the Los Angeles Lakers recorded an impressive 67 wins and the top seed in the Western Conference. Shaquille O’Neal was the focus of the team, taking out the MVP that season, while Kobe Bryant averaged 22.5 points off 17.9 shot attempts per game – pretty minor in comparison to the production later in his career.
The team matched-up against the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western finals, but despite home court advantage, they found themselves in a deep hole in the deciding game seven at the Staples Centre. The Blazers held as much as a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter.
It prompted a 21-year-old Kobe to achieve his first memorable playoff performance, and help orchestrate one of the greatest playoff comebacks of all time.
A little over a minute and a half into the final quarter, Bryant made a crucial play that helped swing momentum in the Purple and Gold’s favour, blocking Bonzi Wells and throwing the ball forward which led to a Brian Shaw three-pointer. From there the Blazers did not make a shot for the next six minutes and 50 seconds, while the Lakers piled on 10 points to level the scores at 75.
The hosts continued their onslaught with Bryant and O’Neal leading the charge, scoring 10 of the team’s final 14 points. Bryant hit a contested jump-shot with just over a minute to play handing the hosts a four point lead, before setting up O’Neal for a monster alley-oop slam with 41 seconds to play – one of the most iconic plays in playoff history. The Lakers held their nerve for an 89-84 win, and were heading to the big dance.
Kobe lobs it up for Shaq to send the Lakers to the finals. West Finals, game 7.
June 4th, 2000. pic.twitter.com/oP5l9nR6qx
— Iconic NBA Plays (@IconicNBAplays) March 18, 2019
Bryant led the team in all major categories, finishing with 25 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and four blocks.
The arrival – Taking over in game four of the 2000 NBA Finals, against the Indiana Pacers
The emergence of Bryant as a true champion, with the capability of performing on the biggest stage, was further revealed in the 2000 NBA finals. His fourth year in the league, the youngster along with O’Neal looked primed to seal their first title together, holding a 2-1 lead heading into game four of the deciding series against the Indiana Pacers.
The Pacers however, playing on home court, came from behind to force overtime, levelling the scores at 104. Mid-way through the deciding period O’Neal committed his sixth foul, forcing him to watch from the sidelines for the remainder, while the Lakers had to chug along without their star-player.
Step up, Kobe Bryant. The young Black Mamba placed the team on his back, telling them all not to worry.
Pacers’ big-man Rick Smits went to work in the post without the big body of Shaq in his way, but every time he or Indiana made a shot, Bryant hit back. He made back to back jumpers in the clutch to maintain a three-point lead. As the team moved down court with under 20 seconds to play, Bryant rebounded a Brian Shaw miss for an easy put back to extend the lead back out to three with six seconds to play. Game over, and a handy 3-1 lead was the reward for the Purple and Gold, ultimately contributing to the franchise’s 12th title.
Bryant finished the game with 28 points, eight of which came in overtime and six in the final two minutes.
Offensive powerhouse – A monster scoring performance in the 2001 NBA Playoffs
Bryant’s performances on the offensive end took an even bigger leap forward in the 2000-01 NBA season, developing into as much a valuable piece as teammate Shaquille O’Neal.
Bryant’s regular season average jumped to 28.5 points a game, up six points from the previous season, as well as his attempts which went from 17.9 to 22.2. His efforts along with those of O’Neal helped the Lakers to the second seed out West with 56 wins. Though everyone knew the team had more to give, and they showed that in the postseason.
The Lakers went 11-0 in their three Western Conference series, sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, and the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs, with Bryant leading the way in points with 31.6, including four 30+ and two 40+ point games.
He quite incredibly averaged 33.3 points off 51 per cent shooting, as well as seven assists and seven rebounds against the Spurs in the Conference finals, who boasted the league’s best defence as well as All-Star big-men David Robinson and Tim Duncan.
Come finals time Bryant’s scoring did drop slightly, but he still found himself putting up 24.6 a game as the Lakers eased by the Philadelphia 76ers in five games. Overall the team finished with a 15-1 playoff record – the best all-time, only matched once by the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors.
In 16 postseason games Bryant averaged 29.4 points a game off 47 per cent shooting including six 30+ point games, which is admirable given the greater focus placed on O’Neal. The big man did take home finals MVP honours, but no one can deny the importance Bryant was to the Lakers’ historic run.
Team first, Me second – Redemption at its finest in the 2009 season, culminating in an NBA championship
Perhaps this pick does not primarily focus on an achievement in the playoffs or one directly from Bryant himself. Instead, the playoffs acted as the cherry on top of a landmark moment for both he and the team.
Coach Phil Jackson recounts in his book Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success how the Lakers revamped themselves mentally heading into the 2008-09 season, saying he had never seen a group galvanise with such determination in his playing or coaching career.
A lot of that change was thanks to Bryant, who changed himself.
Similar to Michael Jordan shifting his focus from ‘Me’ to ‘We’ with the Chicago Bulls in 1989, Jackson adds how Bryant, then aged 30, steered away from his ball-dominant philosophy he lived by the previous five or so years. He engaged with his teammates both on and off the court at a far greater level. As a result his minutes and shots a game dropped, resulting in a lower points average. But he still posted a respectable 26.4 a game, off 47 per cent from the field – a career best since his days with Shaq.
“It was as if the other players were now his partners, not his personal spear-carriers,” Jackson adds.
The Lakers improved on their previous season by eight wins, finishing with a 65-17 record and gaining the top seed in the Western Conference. Making their way past the Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets in the playoffs, the Lakers leaned on the experience and skill of their leader, as Bryant increased his scoring to 30.2 points a game, including five games of 38 or more points all postseason. He averaged 5.5 assists and 5.3 rebounds a game as well.
Come the finals, five games was all the Lakers needed to knock of the underdog Orlando Magic. Bryant averaged an impressive 32.4 points, and claimed ring number four for himself and the finals MVP.
Closing out the Suns – 2010 Western Conference finals, game six vs Phoenix Suns
By the time the 2009-10 season rolled around Bryant was a veteran, the Lakers were an aging team and coach Jackson’s retirement from the game seemed imminent. The underlying factor of age though did not slow the team down from pursuing a second consecutive title.
The Lakers won 57 games, enough for the number one seed in the West, and made it all the way to the Conference finals without much resistance. Kobe had another consistent scoring season, averaging 27 points a game which carried over into the playoffs, where he put up an improved 29.2 a game off 46 per cent shooting, with six games of 35 or more points.
Absolute savagery… Kobe Bryant Full Series Highlights vs Phoenix Suns 2010 WCF https://t.co/2FFg69iGgy
— #RIPMamba 🙏🏽🐍 (@Will_Pio365) August 1, 2016
On the road in game six of the West finals against their division-rival Phoenix Suns, the Lakers had the chance to close-out the series. As expected, they were forced to work hard, and needed a clutch performance from their very best. Kobe already had four 30+ point performances in four of the series’ five games so far, and continued his form.
The Black Mamba scored 24 points through the first three quarters to help the Lakers to a 17-point lead, but another big quarter was left in him.
The Suns began eating into the visitors’ lead, reducing it to as many as five in the final period. Bryant matched the Suns shot for shot, whether it be a Steve Nash or Leandro Barbosa jump-shot or an Amar’e Stoudemire score in the paint. And his shots were not open jumpers; instead they were heavily contested, one on one against committed defenders.
Bryant accounted for 11 of the Lakers’ final 16 points, including two daggers with the defence draped all over him in the final two minutes, to put the game beyond doubt. He finished with 37 as the Lakers won 111-103.
They went onto the finals against their arch-rival Boston Celtics, and avenged their 2008 loss, winning a brutal seven game series. Bryant ended up with ring number five and his second finals MVP.
Sports writer based in Auckland, New Zealand. I have a strong passion for a range of codes, including the NBA, NFL, Soccer, Rugby and more.