It was a typically busy sports Sunday in January. With nine games on the NBA schedule and the NFL’s Conference Championships taking place, a seemingly meaningless matchup in Los Angeles between the 21-19 Los Angeles Lakers and the 14-26 Toronto Raptors was hardly appointment viewing. Hell, even Jack Nicholson skipped the game.
All that he and countless others back in Toronto missed was the single greatest scoring performance by a guard the NBA has ever seen.
81 points. It still doesn’t seem possible. Yet 10 years ago to the day Kobe Bryant pulled off the unthinkable in what has become, for all the wrong reasons, one of the most memorable moments in Raptors franchise history.
That Bryant would go off like that was practically inevitable that season. In December against the Dallas Mavericks he scored 62 points in three quarters, and he’d been averaging 41.2 points per in the month of January heading into the game versus Toronto (by the end of that year he would join Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, and Rick Barry as the only players to average more than 35 points per game in a single season).
Download it now: iOS | Android | Windows | Special Offer
While his shot selection and ball-dominance has come under question before—like earlier this season before Bryant announced that 2016 would be his last stand— in that ’05-’06 season the Lakers secondary options were some combination of Lamar Odom, Smush Parker, Chris Mihm, and Sasha Vujacic. So you could understand why Bryant felt the need to shoot. A lot.
That, of course, was hardly a surprise to the Raptors players and coaches, who, like anybody following the league that season, had been keeping track of Bryant’s scoring exploits.
“You ever play NBA Jam back in the day,” asks Mike James, the Raptors starting point guard that night, “and you hit four, five shots and all of a sudden the ball is on fire? He was on a hot streak and that’s where his mindset was at [heading into that game].”
Which was more than fine by Raptors coach Sam Mitchell, who elected for a 2-3 zone to start the game, the goal being to shut down every other Laker and let Bryant try to beat his team one-on-five.
Foolish in retrospect, on paper the plan seemed quite effective at first. Thanks in part to a team-high 19 points on a perfect 5-5 from deep from James through two quarters, the Raptors held a comfortable 63-49 lead heading into halftime. Sure, Bryant had already netted 26 points by then, but it had been largely overshadowed.
However, if you were on the floor that night you knew Bryant was in for a monster night right from the opening tip.
“Sometimes you let the game come to you,” says James. “You slow down, pass the ball around, maybe you want to get the big man involved on a couple of possessions early. Not Kobe. Usually a player gets into that mindset in the fourth quarter, or late in a game when it’s winning time, but he was already in another state of mind in, like, the first five minutes of the first quarter. Because we were able to difuse the situation early, not a lot of people recognized it. [But] he was just: Attack, attack, attack.”
Perhaps the wildest part of Bryant’s 81-point performance was that the Lakers needed just about all of them in order to win that game. In the third quarter, Bryant dropped 27, as Los Angeles vaulted to a 91-85 lead. Yet the Raptors defence didn’t adjust; 62 points in three quarters wasn’t enough for Mitchell or his staff to scrap the zone, or consider double-teaming Bryant. Ten years later, just as it was that night, the question Raptors fans can’t help but ask is: Why?
It was just as confounding to the players on the court.
“Sometimes the hardest part of being a player,” James says, “is you get into a coach's system and he wants you to believe and buy-in. A coach can go into a game so focused on his game plan, but sometimes things like that happen where you have to be willing to go away from it, even just for that night.” Mitchell wasn’t willing. And so Bryant kept torching Toronto. “It just kept building and building,” says James, “to the point that he just wasn’t going to miss any longer. And we allowed that to happen because nobody really challenged him defensively.”
Then-Raptor Jalen Rose, tasked with guarding Bryant one-on-one for huge stretches of the game, has suggested in the past that Mitchell was trying to teach him and the team a lesson by refusing to double Bryant (“Coaches go through that sometimes,” he told ESPN a few years back. “’Since you didn’t listen to me 100 per cent, I’m going to watch you suffer’.”
But James didn’t see it that way, pointing to the team’s lack of toughness and failure to avoid getting wrapped up in the Kobe Show for the outcome.
“I would watch how during timeouts coach Mitchell would have, like, a smirk on his face,” recalls James. “Everyone [on the Raptors] was so amazed by what was going on. I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone, and I just couldn’t figure out— ‘Why aren’t we focusing on defence right now? Why aren’t we trying to regain our lead.’ Let’s get back in this game! And everyone is laughing like, ‘Did you see that shot he just made?’, or ‘My goodness did you see that pump fake from the corner?’ Are you serious right now? We’re not thinking about winning no longer? That’s what bothered me because everyone in the gym was starstruck and I felt like I was the only one in that moment who was focused on winning. I mean, c’mon man. That bothered me. And it makes it look like you’re the crazy one, because of your passion.”
In the second half, James approached his coach and asked for the chance to try to guard Bryant, or at least offer a double-team. Mitchell told him he didn’t want James, who finished the game as the Raptors' leading scorer, to get into foul trouble and have to leave the game. For a player like James, an undrafted player who had earned his first real shot in the NBA as a defensive-oriented guard on the 2004 champion Detroit Pistons, the fact that he didn’t check Bryant for a single possession that night remains one of the biggest regrets of his career.
James may have been able to offer a different challenge to Bryant than his teammates, but nobody was slowing the Lakers superstar down that night.
It remains the most memorable scoring performance we’ve ever seen (Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game was never televised), and while James felt embarrassed being on the wrong end of history, the competitor in him can’t help but respect what he saw.
“They say hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” he says. “But imagine if the talent works hard, too? Kobe took on that kind of attitude, and he got to showcase it on a night like this. You have the confidence and the stage to do it. He showed all of his work that night.”
It’s how Bryant remembers the 81-point game, as well— the natural result of years of commitment to getting better.
“I took a thousand shots a day, every single day,” Bryant recently told ESPN when asked about the 10-year anniversary. “You put that kind of work in, and of course I'm making these shots. Of course I'm making these pull-up shots. I've made them a thousand times a day. It wasn't something where I was like, ‘This is otherworldly.’ No, this is what I'm supposed to do.”
“As a player it’s about wins and losses. I was mad that we lost, mad that all season I was asked about the 81-point game,” says James. “[But] sitting back and thinking about it now? Wow. Kudos to you, Kobe. That was an amazing night for you. An amazing night for the history of the game.”