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Mamba Moments: 20 snapshots from 20 years for Kobe Bryant

The Los Angeles Lakers will retire Kobe Bryant’s Nos. 8 and 24 before Monday’s game against the Golden State Warriors at the Staples Center, and to honor the occasion we compiled the 20 moments — one for each of his seasons in purple and gold — that best represented the Mamba Mentality.

Kobe Bryant was as cold-blooded as they come in the NBA. (Yahoo Sports)

81

Asked about it last year — how it happened, how it felt, what he remembered 10 years down the line — Kobe said that scoring 81 points against the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 22, 2006, felt like “a blur.” Luckily, cameras were rolling. Footage exists. There’s proof of Sasquatch, a game so monstrous that only Wilt’s sainted 100-point game tops it in NBA history, so we can go back, revisit, and sharpen what’s gone blurry:

When you run the tape back, you find yourself slack-jawed by that Raptors defense — second-worst in the NBA that year, all soft zones and slow feet and half-hearted reaches — that allowed Kobe to build up a head of steam that would turn him into a runaway train, hellbent for the basket with no brakes in sight. Yes, Jalen Rose famously caught the brunt of the beating, but everyone in Raptors red — Morris Peterson, Joey Graham, the rotating bigs who failed to protect the rim, the immortal Pape Sow — got a taste, as Kobe sauntered anywhere he wanted on the floor.

Loping drives to the lane for short runners, reverse layups in what passed for traffic, pull-up jumpers off the bounce, quick releases off screens: he opened his bag and found everything he needed, right there at his disposal. The Lakers needed all of it; despite Kobe posting 26 by halftime, L.A. somehow managed to fall behind 18 in the third quarter to a team that had neither the interest nor the wherewithal to defend the game’s most potent scorer. So he outscored Toronto by himself, 27-22, in the third quarter … and then did it again, 28-19, in the fourth. (The Lakers scored 31 in the fourth. Lamar Odom made a 3. Kobe assisted.)

“When I talk about Kobe’s performance that night, I mean it from the other perspective of video games,” former Raptors forward Charlie Villanueva once wrote for The Players Tribune. “That you’re playing against a machine.”

Twenty-eight makes on 46 shots, 7-of-13 from deep, 18-of-20 at the stripe, good for the second-highest-scoring performance in NBA history. (And, depending on how you see things, maybe an even more impressive one than No. 1.) What makes it the signature Kobe moment, though, isn’t the sheer awe-inspiring fact of 81. It’s this:

“I should have had 90 points or more. I missed two free throws after making 62 straight. I had some open looks. I had some really open looks that I missed. I could have had more. There’s a lot of easy opportunities I missed. I think 100 is possible. I absolutely do. If I hadn’t sat out those six minutes in the first half, maybe I would have had it.” — Dan Devine

***

61 at MSG

David Lee knew. He didn’t know how he knew, but he knew.

“This is at the jump ball,” the former New York Knicks forward and two-time All-Star recently told Marc Stein of the New York Times. “Usually Kobe shakes everybody’s hand before the game, but he just stared at everybody. I looked at [then-Knicks head coach Mike] D’Antoni and told him, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but something bad is about to happen.’”

He was right:

You’re not going to believe this, but the combination of Quentin Richardson, Al Harrington, sophomore-year Wilson Chandler and cross-matched bigs Lee and Jared Jeffries didn’t exactly dissuade Kobe from attacking at every opportunity. And once he’d established the rhythm, the rest of it didn’t matter. There was one third-quarter possession where Kobe skates from right to left across the lane, with several Knicks defenders passing him off, until he reached the lane line, turned back toward his right and saw the 6-foot-10 Jeffries in trail position with his right arm perfectly placed to contest a shot attempt … so Bryant leaned back a little bit and lofted a moonbeam over Jeffries’ right arm. It barely made an Olympic diver’s splash going through the net.

He was untouchable that night, a master at work and eliciting MVP chants in the other guys’ gym, in full ownership of his craft. And, by night’s end, in sole ownership of the Garden’s house record for points in a single game, toppling Bernard King’s 60-point performance on Christmas Day of 1984. (Kobe did always have a little bit of Grinch to him.)

While King’s record lasted nearly a quarter-century, Bryant’s lasted only five years before Carmelo Anthony took it back for the home team. Kobe’s legacy at the World’s Most Famous Arena, though, will last forever.

“The building is special, because it’s the last one left,” he said after the 61-point explosion, according to Howard Beck of the New York Times. “This is the last one that holds all the memories.” — DD

***

60-point finale

There was nothing to play for in that final game of the 2015-16 season. The Lakers were wrapping up their worst season ever. The Utah Jazz were done, having their postseason hopes extinguished before tipoff. All that was left was to cross the finish line toward which Kobe had been moving for five months and for 20 years; all that was left was to say goodbye.

So Kobe did. His way.

“On his way out of the Lakers, out of the NBA, Kobe Bryant dropped 60 points on the Utah Jazz, and did the unthinkable in the basketball universe,” Adrian Wojnarowski wrote. “He made the Golden State Warriors setting a forever record of 73 regular-season victories a sidebar.”

It was absurd and hilarious and ridiculous and perfect, a real-life tall tale growing taller with every heave, chuck, drive and pull-up. Sixty points, for the sixth and final time, on 50 shots, more than anybody had fired since Wilt, Barry and Elgin. Capped, most remarkably of all, by a pass — a full-court outlet for a Jordan Clarkson dunk.

Lakers win. Kobe wins. Of course he does.

“I challenged him to get 50,” stunned longtime teammate/nemesis/foil/friend Shaquille O’Neal said after the game. “And the motherf****r got 60.” — DD

***

Kobe doesn’t flinch

More than any dunk, fadeaway, roar, jaw-jut or jersey-suck, the Most Kobe Thing — what former SLAM editor-in-chief Ryan Jones called “the definitive, literal encapsulation” of what makes Kobe Kobe — happened during a March 2010 visit to Central Florida to take on the Orlando Magic. Sometimes, a simple baseline out of bounds play can become the stuff of legend:

Kobe had been jawing and jostling with Orlando’s Matt Barnes all game long, and midway through the third quarter, Barnes decided to try to get inside Kobe’s head by pump-faking the ball directly into his face before throwing it inbounds. Kobe just kept bobbing back and forth, acting as if nothing had ever happened. As if neither Barnes nor the ball even existed.

After the game, Bryant was asked how it was even possible that he didn’t react to Barnes’ ball-fake.

“I knew he wasn’t going to do s***,” he said. “What would I flinch for?”

It left an imprint on Barnes.

“That scared me a little,” Barnes later said, according to Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated. “I mean, that wasn’t even human.”

“What’s funny was, I didn’t realize how close the ball was, because if you look at the replay, I wasn’t even looking,” Barnes told Grantland’s Jonathan Abrams in a 2014 feature. “I don’t know what made me do it. It rubbed his nose and he didn’t flinch at all. It just kind of shows who he is. He’s just a cold-blooded dude. I respect that about him.”

The respect, it turned out, was mutual. The next season, Bryant helped import Barnes to play with him on the Lakers.

“I remember one thing [Kobe] said was, ‘Anyone crazy enough to eff with me is crazy enough to play with me,’” Barnes told Abrams. — DD

***

The Shaq-Kobe feud

It wasn’t so much a moment as it was years of the temperature slowly increasing, followed by a seething 2003-04 season, before everything finally boiled over during the 2004 offseason, resulting in Shaq being traded to the Miami Heat on July 14, 2004, and Kobe re-signing with the Lakers a day later.

The relationship didn’t exactly start off on the right foot, with O’Neal dubbing Bryant “Showboat” from the jump, and his perception of Kobe as a cocky and selfish kid only increased as the All-Star appearances, late-game touches and magazine spreads mounted. Conversely, Bryant considered O’Neal aloof and lazy, and that impression didn’t get any better the older and more brittle Shaq got.

There were practice scraps, wedding invitations that got lost in the mail, entire games of passive-aggressive play, trade requests — all the on- and off-court drama that makes a good NBA feud. Shaq even “threatened to murder Kobe” at one point. It all came to a head in the 2004 playoffs and the aftermath of a Finals loss, when Shaq was seeking a contract extension and Bryant was a free agent.

Shaq wanted out, and Kobe wanted him gone. Or was it the other way around? Once it became clear to O’Neal that the Lakers were leaning toward Bryant in a him-or-me proposition — a decision hastened by Kobe getting “very close” to signing with the crosstown Clippers — Shaq made one final trade request, and the Lakers granted his wish. The very next day, Bryant signed a seven-year, $136 million deal to remain with the Lakers. Finally, a team he could call his own.

That summer, news leaked of a statement Bryant made to police about O’Neal before his 2003 arrest on sexual assault charges. Kobe allegedly told detectives “he should have done what Shaq does” — ”pay his women not to say anything.” To which Shaq responded, via ESPN.com:

“This whole situation is ridiculous. I never hang out with Kobe, I never hung around him. In the seven or eight years we were together, we were never together. So how this guy can think he knows anything about me or my business is funny. And one last thing — I’m not the one buying love. He’s the one buying love.”

Needless to say, their first official meeting as NBA foes, on Christmas Day 2004, came with some serious Mega-Powers Explode hype. This bit of NBA drama had everything, too:

  • The sturm und drang over whether the two teammates-turned-rivals would interact before tipoff;
  • Shaq blocking Kobe’s shot on the very first play of the game;
  • Kobe coming right back for a fadeaway jumper in Shaq’s grill on the next trip;
  • Shaq fouling out late in the fourth quarter by whacking Kobe on a play he’d later describe thusly: “No layups, no dunks […] especially for him”;
  • Kobe scoring 42 points in 50 minutes to prove he could carry the load without Shaq; and
  • The Heat winning by two in overtime after Kobe missed a potential game-winner at the buzzer over the outstretched arm of Shaq’s new running buddy, Dwyane Wade, which prompted Shaq to say: “I knew that it wasn’t going to go in.” Just perfect.

The feud fizzled before raging again in 2008, when Shaq — Heat title now in tow — grabbed the mic at a nightclub and unleashed his infamous “Kobe, tell me how my a** tastes” freestyle rap. “Kobe ratted me out, that’s why I’m getting divorced,” O’Neal rapped, referencing his ex-teammate’s testimony, and adding of Bryant’s loss to the Boston Celtics in the 2008 Finals: “Kobe couldn’t do without me.”

There were fewer peaks and more valleys in the years that followed. They shared MVP honors and a laugh at the 2009 All-Star Game. Shaq congratulated Kobe on his 2009 and 2010 titles. O’Neal called Bryant “the greatest Laker ever” and wondered what might’ve been had they reconciled. Kobe attended Shaq’s statue unveiling, and O’Neal will almost certainly return the favor someday soon.

Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant share a laugh during the unveiling of Shaq’s statue outside Staples Center. (AP)

Feuds fade. Moments pass. We’ll let Shaq and Kobe wonder if theirs could’ve lasted longer. — DD and Ben Rohrbach

***

‘Sometimes, you push so hard that you break’

Just past the midway point of a season they were supposed to rule, the Lakers were 17-25, still struggling to incorporate Steve Nash and Dwight Howard onto a team that belonged to Bryant. The superstar two-guard guaranteed a playoff spot, but the Lakers were still holding off the Utah Jazz by a half-game for the eighth seed in the Western Conference with nine games to play.

That’s when Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni dialed up Kobe’s minutes, and Bryant answered the call. He played all but 23 seconds in a win over the Sacramento Kings, kicking off a stretch of five wins in six games during which he averaged 28 points, 9.1 assists and 7.7 rebounds in 45.6 minutes. Knowing what we know now, the Lakers never should have let him get to this point.

The Lakers still only led the Jazz by a game in the standings, and Bryant was two nights removed from playing all 48 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back against the Portland Trail Blazers. They were playing a Golden State Warriors squad that was still in its infancy before the dynasty, and they were clawing their way through another one-possession game.

Bryant had already landed awkwardly on his knee and turned his ankle in the game, but he was working on another 48-minute night, having just made back-to-back 3-pointers to even the score at 107, when, with a little more than three minutes remaining, he crumbled to the Staples Center floor after minimal contact from Warriors wing Harrison Barnes on a drive.

His Achilles was toast, snapped in half. Yet, he limped to the huddle for a timeout and back to the free-throw line, where he buried two shots to tie the score again at 109 before Steve Blake took a foul to get Bryant off the floor. He walked under his own power to the locker room.

He reportedly asked a trainer to tape his foot back together to no avail. The Achilles was gone.


Bryant met with reporters afterward, resigned to the fact that his season was over and still trying to process what it meant for his career prospects 17 seasons into a Hall of Fame legacy. Early the next morning, he took to Facebook for a now legendary stream-of-consciousness post:

This is such BS! All the training and sacrifice just flew out the window with one step that I’ve done millions of times! The frustration is unbearable. The anger is rage. Why the hell did this happen ?!? Makes no damn sense. Now I’m supposed to come back from this and be the same player Or better at 35?!? How in the world am I supposed to do that??

I have NO CLUE. Do I have the consistent will to overcome this thing? Maybe I should break out the rocking chair and reminisce on the career that was. Maybe this is how my book ends. Maybe Father Time has defeated me…Then again maybe not! It’s 3:30am, my foot feels like dead weight, my head is spinning from the pain meds and I’m wide awake. Forgive my Venting but what’s the purpose of social media if I won’t bring it to you Real No Image?? Feels good to vent, let it out. To feel as if THIS is the WORST thing EVER! Because After ALL the venting, a real perspective sets in. There are far greater issues/challenges in the world then a torn achilles. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, find the silver lining and get to work with the same belief, same drive and same conviction as ever.

One day, the beginning of a new career journey will commence. Today is NOT that day.

“If you see me in a fight with a bear, prey for the bear”. I’ve always loved that quote. That’s “mamba mentality” we don’t quit, we don’t cower, we don’t run. We endure and conquer.

I know it’s a long post but I’m Facebook Venting LOL. Maybe now I can actually get some sleep and be excited for surgery tomorrow. First step of a new challenge.

Guess I will be Coach Vino the rest of this season. I have faith in my teammates. They will come thru.

Thank you for all your prayers and support. Much Love Always.

Mamba Out

Bryant returned in December of the following season, but a leg injury ended his 2013-14 campaign six games later. He played 35 games the following season, and then announced the next would be his last. He was never the same, and we all seemed to realize it in that moment.

“It’s almost like [Bryant] became two people,” former Lakers assistant coach Darvin Ham told ESPN.com’s Baxter Holmes last year. “The competitor and the guy that’s — I don’t want to use the term ‘die’ — but dies at battle with sword in hand, shield in hand, like gladiator-style. He had given it everything he could possibly give — killed 50 soldiers, 20 animals. It’s finally here, like you have to accept the fact that you’re mortal.”

Those post-injury free throws were quintessential Bryant. He wouldn’t quit, even when his body already had. Not with a playoff berth on the line. So it was that he would not change a thing.

“I believe that when you’re up against a challenge, you have to push yourself to the limit,” Bryant told Holmes just before his retirement. “You have to push yourself until you see what your limits are and you see what you’re capable of doing and what you’re capable of not doing. Sometimes, you push so hard that you break. But then, when you break, you see what you’re made of yet again because you have to rebuild yourself again. But I’d never be able to forgive myself had we not made the playoffs. If I did not push as hard as I could have, I would never know how much I had left in the tank, and I would never be able to forgive myself for that.”

The Lakers beat the Warriors that night, thanks to Bryant’s 35 points, five rebounds and four assists, and they went on to capture a seventh seed, only to be swept out of the first round by the San Antonio Spurs. It was the last time his team made the playoffs. — BR

***

Kobe Bryant 62, Dallas Mavericks 61

Del Harris brought Bryant off the bench for the first two years of his career, before the Lakers coach was fired 12 games into the 1998-99 season, and a 20-year-old Bryant made himself a mental note.

“When I was a rookie, I hated Del,” Bryant later told Mark Medina. “I always said if I get a chance to get revenge, I’m going to get it.”

So, when Bryant saw Harris on the opposing bench as an assistant for the Mavericks on Dec. 20, 2005, he found some extra fuel for his fire and torched Dallas through three quarters of sheer mastery:

Dallas was no doormat. The Mavs were on their way to 60 wins and the franchise’s first Finals that season, with Dirk Nowitzki operating near the height of his powers and a decent defense behind him.

And yet:

“We had no answer for him,” Mavericks head coach Avery Johnson told reporters after a game in which he was ejected out of sheer frustration. “We tried to double-team him, we tried to zone him, we tried to trap him in the backcourt, and nothing worked. He had his way with us tonight.”

Bryant finished 18-for-31 from the floor, including 4-of-10 from 3-point range and 22-of-25 from the free-throw line, scoring 15 points in the first quarter, 17 in the second and a Lakers record 30 in the third, capped by a 3-pointer with 4.4 seconds remaining in the quarter to give his team a 95-61 lead.

Inside the huddle before the final frame, Lakers coach Phil Jackson scrawled on his clipboard:

“Kobe 62, Dallas 61.”

His work was done. Bryant needn’t play another second, having scored 62 points in 33 minutes already. Despite chants of “We want Kobe!” from the Los Angeles crowd, Kobe sat out the fourth quarter of a 112-90 victory. “The game was in the bag,” he said afterward. “It was in the refrigerator.”

The 62 points were then a career high for Bryant and eclipsed Shaq’s Staples Center record of 61. Only Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West had scored more in a Lakers uniform — in four quarters.

“I just felt like I could continue to attack these guys,” Bryant said at the time, via the Associated Press. “It was just determination, take it to them. It’s definitely the best scoring game I’ve ever had.”

When Bryant made his final visit to Dallas during the 2015-16 retirement tour, he was asked what sparked the night he outscored the Western Conference champs all by himself. “Del Harris,” he said. — BR

***

Game 7, 2000 Western Conference finals

Kobe Bryant was already a household name, a 21-year-old two-time All-Star. But he wasn’t cold-blooded killer Kobe Bryant yet. We figured those Lakers could be dynastic someday, but we were still waiting on him to take his seat beside Shaquille O’Neal on the NBA throne. This was his coronation.

The Lakers trailed the Portland Trail Blazers by 13 entering the fourth quarter and 15 with 10:28 remaining. They scored 65 points through the game’s first 37-plus minutes, shooting less than 50 percent from the field, committing double-digit turnovers and getting out-rebounded by a Portland frontcourt full of Arvydas Sabonis, Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen, Detlef Schrempf and Bonzi Wells.

“[Game] 7s are interesting games, aren’t they?” said then-Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who saw Michael Jordan play a handful of win-or-go-home games in Chicago. “I’ve never seen one quite like that before, or had a team that I thought had run out of gas as much as I thought they had in the third quarter.”

A Shaq put-back cut into Portland’s lead, but it was Bryant’s block of Wells with 9:48 to play, followed on the other end by a Brian Shaw 3-pointer to cut the lead to 10, that ignited the greatest fourth-quarter comeback in the NBA’s Game 7 history, keyed by a 15-0 run that erased the deficit at 75-75.

Bryant’s 11-foot jumper sliced the deficit to 75-72 with roughly six minutes on the clock, back-to-back free throws gave the Lakers an 80-79 edge with 1:34 remaining, another 16-foot jumper pushed the lead to four with just over a minute left, and his iconic alley-oop to Shaq at the 41-second mark gave the Lakers an 85-79 advantage that the Blazers couldn’t surmount in a devastating 89-84 defeat.

“I thought I threw the ball too high,” said Bryant. “Shaq went up and got it, I was like, ‘Damn!'”

The Lakers outscored the Blazers 31-13 in the final frame, holding Portland to 5-of-23 shooting, including a disastrous 0-for-13 spell. The top-seeded Lakers, who hadn’t lost three straight games all season, avoided blowing a 3-1 series lead that could have been devastating to a budding dynasty’s psyche. Bryant finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and four blocks — all team highs.

(We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention disgraced former NBA referee Tim Donaghy cited the Lakers’ 37-16 free-throw discrepancy in this game as evidence of chicanery in his 2009 book, Blowing the Whistle. None of which eradicates Kobe’s effort and all of which only adds to the mystique of this moment.)

The lead to former L.A. Times scribe J.A. Adande’s postgame column was prescient:

This comeback, this Game 7 thriller won’t go down as just a “building stone for our team,” as Laker Coach Phil Jackson called it.

It’s the day the cement dried on one of the cornerstones of the franchise, and this two-part foundation locked into place.

He was, of course, talking about Bryant, whose Game 7 performance sent the Lakers to the Finals for the first time since the Magic Johnson era, delivered the first of three straight titles alongside O’Neal and laid the groundwork for Kobe Bryant, Superstar, Destroyer of Men, Lakers Legend, Deadly Mamba.

Asked afterward if Bryant ascended that night, O’Neal told Adande, “I think so. Kobe’s a great player.”

Just ask Blazers fans, who booed him mercifully on every trip through Portland for the next 16 years. — BR

***

Game 4, 2000 NBA Finals

Kobe missed Game 3 of the 2000 Finals with a badly sprained ankle, and the Indiana Pacers took advantage. Reggie Miller scored 28 points after combining for the same number on 8-of-32 shooting in the first two games opposite Bryant, and the Pacers trimmed the Lakers’ series advantage to 2-1.

On the eve of Game 4, there was some question as to whether Bryant could return, since he was being held out of practice, and Pacers point guard Mark Jackson grew tired of hearing about the 21-year-old.

“Everybody yesterday was talking about how Kobe made the difference,” Jackson said between games. “Well, we’ve won in this building when Kobe was in there. We can beat them with or without Kobe.”

Fast forward four quarters and the first few minutes of overtime in Game 4, and Bryant is working on 22 points when Shaq fouls out with 2:33 remaining and the Lakers clinging to a 112-111 lead. Maybe Jackson was right. Maybe the Pacers could beat the Lakers with or without Kobe. Or maybe not.

“Don’t worry about it,” Kobe told Shaq in the moment. “I got you.”

The Lakers fed Bryant every time down the floor. He sandwiched a pair of long jumpers and a tip-in that thrice pushed the lead to three around a block of Austin Croshere that put his will on full display, sealing a 120-118 OT win that gave the Lakers a 3-1 lead and all but dashed Indiana’s title hopes.

“It was like, do not give the ball to anyone else,” said Lakers teammate John Salley, one of many veteran teammates whose perception of Bryant transformed from selfish 21-year-old to Finals closer in that moment. “It was like, if anybody else shoots, call timeout and send them to the locker room.”

The performance drew plenty of Jordan comparisons, to which Salley added, “The best thing about Kobe Bryant is he’s going to be known as Kobe Bryant. … A star is born. And he’s the next one.”

Still hobbled by the ankle, Bryant deferred to O’Neal for the first half, and Shaq responded with 36 points and 21 rebounds before fouling out, but once Kobe could sense blood in the water, it was as if pain no longer existed. He scored 22 points in the second half and overtime to deliver the series dagger.

“This is the game I’ve been dreaming about, to be honest with you,” Bryant said after finishing with 28 points, five assists, four steals, two blocks and a steal on the evening. “I dream about it every day.”

Bryant’s night was so impressive that even then-Pacers coach Larry Bird conceded, “It was awesome.”

Jackson, meanwhile, finished with seven points on eight shots for the Pacers. Afterward, the Pacers seemed to be resigned to the fact that, ankle injury or not, they couldn’t beat the Lakers with Kobe.

“Ain’t nothing wrong with that man’s ankle,” Sam Perkins said. “I’ve been trying to tell you that.”— BR

***

So many airballs

All year, Lakers fans implored coach Del Harris to play his 18-year-old rookie more than the 15.5 minutes a night he saw off the bench during the regular season, and they got their wish in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Utah Jazz. But their prayers were not answered.

Young Kobe was thrust into the spotlight during Game 5 when Byron Scott sat out with a wrist injury, Robert Horry was ejected three minutes into the second half and Shaq fouled out with 1:46 remaining in regulation. Suddenly, there was a teenaged Bryant, working as a go-to scoring option in a lineup with Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, Jerome Kersey and Elden Campbell, with a playoff series on the line.

With the score tied 89-89 and the Lakers threatening to send the series back to L.A., they let Bryant work in isolation for the final 10 seconds, and he got himself a decent look from 15 feet. Airball.

At the start of overtime, Van Exel found a wide-open Bryant for a 3-pointer on the left wing. Airball. The Utah crowd was feeling itself now. The cheers came heavy and heavier still when Bryant gathered himself for another 3 at the top of the key. Airball. Bryant did find the net when he got to the rim to trim Utah’s lead to 94-93 with 1:43 to play, but after another Stockton-to-Malone hookup pushed the Jazz edge back to three, and the seconds dwindled on the series, Bryant unloaded yet another 3.

Airball. Jazz 98, Lakers 93. Game over. Series over.

You could see the dejection on his face. His jumper had failed him on the biggest of stages. Even before “First Take” or “Undisputed” ever existed, there were those who were already labeling an 18-year-old un-clutch and a vocal contingent who believed the Lakers would have extended the series had they instead turned to Van Exel down the stretch. And Van Exel was loudest among them.

(Harris wasn’t having it, mind you. “I would give that shot at the end of the game to Kobe today, tomorrow, next week, and 15 years from now,” the Lakers coach at the time told the L.A. Times. “Kobe is our best one-on-one player. . . . He gets the ball in those situations at the end of all our practices.”)

“You know what,” Shaq told Kobe after the embarrassing loss, “remember this, see all these people laughing at you. Just remember, maybe one day we’ll get to the big dance. Just remember it.”

And so he did. Bryant went straight to work when the team plane arrived back in Los Angeles, driving to Palisades High and shooting “until the sun came up,” according to the L.A. Daily News’ Mark Medina. He did the same thing every day that summer, save for the whole sunrise routine, and soon those daily sessions turned into months and years and, eventually, a 20-year career full of clutch performances.

At once, Kobe embodied both the willingness to fail and the will to ensure it never happened again. Others would have stopped shooting after two airballs, Jerry West always said, but Kobe kept going until the buzzer sounded, and he still didn’t stop until breakfast. Even at 18, he was a different beast.

“I think about Kobe and his progress from the time I can remember in Utah when he shot them out of the game,” Pacers forward Sam Perkins said later, after Bryant tore Indiana’s heart out in overtime of Game 4 in the 2000 NBA Finals. “Now he’s a different individual. He’s a competitor just like Michael.”

In hindsight, Bryant can now appreciate all those airballs for what they really were. “t was an early turning point for me in being able to deal with adversity, deal with public scrutiny and self-doubt. At 18 years old, it was gut-check time,” he told the Daily News last year. “I look back at it now with fond memories of it. Back then, it was misery. It helped shape me.” Into a statue outside Staples Center. — BR

***

We’re going streaking

Kobe Bryant didn’t just catch fire for a quarter or a game. He caught fire for months at a time.

There was the first such run — a string of nine straight 40-point games that pushed his scoring average for the month of February 2003 to 40.6 points per game, a rarity in itself. Kobe joined Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan as the only players to score 40 points in nine straight games.

The early 2000s were the age when NBA teams ground out games and 14 teams owned a defensive rating under 100 points per 100 possessions. (Only the Celtics make that list this season.) Kobe eclipsed 40 points 10 times and 50 twice in 14 games that month, and nine of those outings came against those 14 teams, including a 52-point night against a Rockets team anchored by Yao Ming:

“Everyone had their hands in Kobe’s face,” Blazers wing Bonzi Wells said after the penultimate game of Bryant’s 40-point streak almost 15 years ago. “My momma had a hand in his face and he still hit it. Kobe is playing at an unbelievable level and hitting shots. I feel like I am an all-right defender and Ruben [Patterson] is an all-right defender, and he still made us feel like we were no defenders.”

Bryant was just the third player in NBA history, and the first in 40 years, to average 40 points for a month, joining Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor. Of course, Kobe would go on to do it four more times — in January 2006, April 2006 and March 2007, the last of which featured another remarkable streak.

The 2006-07 Lakers, starring Smush Parker, had lost six straight around the ides of March, and they were dropping down the Western Conference standings, in danger of losing their grip on a low playoff seed. So, Bryant grabbed the reins, scoring 65 points on the Blazers, followed in succession by 50 against the Timberwolves, 60 on the Grizzlies and 50 against the Hornets — all wins. The four-game streak of at least 50 points ended when he merely managed 43 against the Warriors (also a win).

That run put Bryant in the company of only Chamberlain, a 7-foot-1 specimen unlike anyone anybody had ever seen in the 1960s. We’d seen 6-foot-6 shooting guards like Kobe before, one in particular, but not like this. Bryant’s performance in March 2007 was so spectacular that it prompted this lead from then-ESPN columnist Jemele Hill: “Kobe Bryant is better than Michael Jordan.” And Jordan’s former Bulls teammate, Steve Kerr, writing for Yahoo Sports at the time, didn’t stray too far from there:

“His offensive game is so good, so fundamentally sound in every aspect, that it may be time to debate whether or not he’s the most complete offensive player in the history of the NBA. I’m not talking about the best player — there are plenty of players who rank well ahead of Bryant in that category. I’m simply wondering if there has ever been a player with a more complete skill set with footwork, ball handling, perimeter shooting and leaping ability.”

The Lakers played 13 more games that season. Kobe scored 50 in another three of them.— BR

***

2009 Finals MVP

With three NBA championships under his belt by age 23, there was a time when Kobe matching MJ’s six rings seemed not only attainable, but perhaps inevitable, and that debate would have gotten real interesting. Then came a second-round playoff exit in 2003, a Finals loss in 2004, the breakup with Shaq later that summer, three years of middling basketball alongside the likes of Kwame Brown and Chris Mihm, and finally the 39-point loss to the Celtics in Game 6 of the 2008 Finals. That one hurt.

“I remember when we were losing, they played that Journey song and the whole arena started singing,” Bryant told the L.A. Times on his retirement tour. “I hated that song for two years. I listened to the song every single day just to remind me of that feeling. Same thing with the Dropkick Murphys [in Boston] — I listened to the Dropkick Murphys all the time just because I wanted to remember that feeling.”

Even if the questions about whether Kobe could win without Shaq were low-hanging fruit for sports-talk radio, they were real and extremely present when the Lakers entered a 2009 Finals meeting with the Orlando Magic. This was Bryant’s best chance to prove his doubters wrong, and he knew it.

So, Kobe went to work, scoring 40 points to go along with eight rebounds, eight assists, two steals and a pair of blocks in a 100-75 Game 1 annihilation. He posted team-highs of 29 points and eight assists as the Lakers escaped Game 2 with an overtime win by the razor-thin margin of Courtney Lee’s missed layup. His 31 points and eight assists led all players in a Game 3 loss, so he responded with a 32-7-8 line in Game 4, scoring or assisting on the first seven points of overtime to secure a 99-91 win. And he capped the series with 30 points, six rebounds, five assists, four blocks and two steals in a Game 5 victory that was on ice with a few minutes to play. He had proven them wrong, and he knew it.

Kobe Bryant feels a weight lifted.

He stood at center court, smiling from ear to ear, waiting for the final seconds to tick off the clock, tasting that first championship he could call his own. Sure, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and, to lesser degrees, Derek Fisher and Trevor Ariza played important rolls, but this one belonged to Bryant.

“It finally felt like a big old monkey was off my back,” a Champagne-soaked Bryant told reporters from the podium afterward. “It felt so good to be able to have this moment. For this moment to be here and to reflect back on the season and everything that you’ve been through, it’s top of the list, man. …

“I was grumpy for a while and now I’m just ecstatic,” he added, “like a kid in a candy store.”

All the sweeter without Shaq.

“It was annoying,” Bryant said. “It was like Chinese water torture, just keep dropping a drop of water on your temple. I would cringe every time. From the standpoint of responding to the challenge, from people saying I couldn’t do it without him, that feels so good, because you prove people wrong.” — BR

***

The “White Hot” photo shoot

Now, this was a moment.

Leave it to Kobe, the mystery, to overshadow Kobe, the player. As his Lakers disposed of the Jazz in Game 1 of their first-round series in 2010, photos of Bryant’s spread in the now-defunct L.A. Times Magazine were making the rounds online, thanks in large part to Trey Kerby here at Ball Don’t Lie.

And they were spectacular.

Kobe Bryant is a vision in white. (L.A. Times Magazine)

There was Kobe of Arabia, Capri Pants Kobe and, who could forget, Pilgrim Kobe. It was glorious, complete with this exchange between Bryant and his interviewer for a feature that ran with the photos:

Tom Murray: I have to ask, when you’re in that chopper, do you ever look down on the city, pinch yourself and say …

Kobe Bryant: How the hell did this happen? Absolutely every time. Like I’m sitting here right now. [Nods toward the two ladies primping him.] You know what I mean? This is dream [expletive]. Wardrobe that’s all white? This just doesn’t happen. Not for me. This is crazy.

Here was Bryant, at the height of his powers, en route to a second straight title, routinely scoring 31 points in a playoff win at age 31 as if he were still 21, and yet he was the butt of a joke — so much so that his people reportedly called TNT and asked them not to show the photos during the broadcast.

It didn’t work. On national TV Kenny Smith called Kobe’s look “a combination of Tupac and Liberace.” Kobe’s teammates weren’t much kinder, and even Kobe got in on the mockery. He called the photos “too artsy,” and then added, “The Babyface look they gave to me, I’m not feeling that in particular.” It was a Twitter moment before there really were Twitter moments, so pilgrim hat’s off to Kobe again.

“I don’t give a s***,” Kobe said of the viral response to the pictures. Asked which was better, this “White Hot” photo shoot or Alex Rodgriguez’s infamous mirror-kissing Details magazine spread a year earlier, Bryant added, “The one that has four rings, because I can tell everybody to kiss my a**.”

The photo shoot created such a stir that the L.A. Times actually asked the stylist to explain himself:

“The scarf picture and the hat picture were more to create an iconic image,” James Valeri said of his stylistic decisions. “When you do a portrait, you do think of the styling in how they’re going to be different and how they’re going to stand out. In 10 years time, or five years time, there has to be something particular or strange or different that will stand out. That image will stay in your mind. That’s how it’s going to become iconic. … A lot of people aren’t used to that, so when iconic pictures come out, they’re disturbing, insulting, fascinating, it has a strong feeling attached to it, good or bad.”

It’s been seven years, and the images haven’t left our mind. So mission accomplished? — BR

A 3-point record

The first one didn’t come until midway through the first quarter. Then, they washed over the Seattle SuperSonics like a Northwest rain, never letting up, until the single-game 3-point record was all his.

Bryant entered the game shooting 31.1 percent from 3 for his career and 28.3 percent during that 2002-03 season, but it wasn’t like the Sonics were leaving him open. Most of his threes came with a hand in his face, and almost all of them never touched the rim. When all was said and done, he had made 12 3-pointers, including nine in a row (another NBA record), en route to 45 points in a 119-98 blowout.

“I don’t think most guys can do that in a gym by themselves,” then-Sonics coach Nate McMillan told reporters after the game, “let alone a game where you’re being defended.”

Kobe had never made more than five threes in a game to that point in his career, but after missing a 40-foot heave to end the first quarter, the 24-year-old made six in the second quarter, all in a row, over a stretch of 5:17 before the break. Word was that a ballboy informed Kobe midway through the game.

Bryant made his first 3-pointer of the second half just before the six-minute mark of the third quarter and added another four in the frame, tying Dennis Scott’s 1996 single-game NBA record of 11 3-pointers with a quarter still to play. He added his 12th triple five minutes into the fourth quarter.

“All right, man, you proved your point,” Sonics forward Rashard Lewis told Kobe. “Leave it alone. Stop.”

Bryant didn’t play the final 4:16. Didn’t need to. He had his 45 points on 16-of-28 shooting, including 12-of-18 from deep, and the three-time defending champs were headed for another double-digit rout.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson said in his postgame press conference, “That was perhaps the greatest streak shooting I have ever seen in my life.” He’s seen a few. — BR

***

Hanging 55 on old MJ

By 2003, the comparisons were already coming free and easy. Kobe was a 24-year-old five-time All-Star with three rings to his name, averaging 30 points a night and deserving of every Jordan corollary.

So it was when a 40-year-old Jordan, playing out his final games for the Washington Wizards, made one last trip to the Staples Center in Year 15 of his career on March 28, 2003, a fan in the stands famously hoisted a sign that read, “Goodbye Michael … Hello Kobe.” And on the night the Lakers were to honor Jordan’s 15-year career with a video tribute to his greatest moments, Bryant stole the show.

It didn’t start that way. Jordan made his first four shots and stole a pass intended for Kobe, drove for a dunk that gave him 11 points and helped staked the Wiz to a 22-15 edge eight minutes into the game. It was the only time Jordan would defend the man trying to ascend to his throne the entire night.

So, Kobe took over. Already with seven of the Lakers’ first 15 points, he scored 23 straight, starting with a steal-and-layup of his own with 2:42 left in the opening frame and capped by three straight 3-pointers to open the next. The Lakers led 38-35 three minutes into the second quarter, and it only got worse, as Bryant made nine consecutive shots on his way to a franchise-record 42 first-half points.

Bryant made 14 of his 19 shots and eight of his 11 3-pointers through two quarters, tying the NBA record for threes in a half. He finished just 1-of-10 in the second half and sat out six minutes of the fourth quarter, but still got to the line enough to put 55 points on the board by the end of a 108-94 rout.

Jordan finished with 23 points of his own, but this wasn’t two greats in their prime. Their playful exchange when Jordan drew a third-quarter charge from Bryant was evidence that this was less of a meeting of two equals and more of a passing of the torch, even if MJ wasn’t ready to concede it fully:

“He definitely has a share of the torch,” Jordan said of Kobe in the aftermath, “and there’s a couple of other guys that carry it as well.”

But while Jordan would just as soon forget Bryant’s performance, Kobe still won’t let him live it down:

“Michael was dishing [trash talk] out to me,” Bryant said of that night on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” some 11 years later. “Years later, after I scored 81, he was barking about how I could never do it against him. ‘There’s no way you’re going to score 80 on me! I would’ve fouled out!’ And we just went back and forth. I normally try to stay pretty cool when it comes to MJ, because I look up to him so much, but on that particular occasion I had to remind him that I did have 42 in one half against him, so …” — BR

***

Jordan and young Kobe go toe-to-toe

Of course, Bryant got his taste of Prime Jordan, too, and he didn’t back down then, either.

After only appearing for brief stints off the bench against MJ’s Bulls as a rookie, Bryant was still working as a reserve in his second season, but coming into his own all the same. He scored a then-career-high 27 points on Dec. 12, 1997, and topped it with 30 two days later. Two games after that, he raised the bar again — with 33 in a showdown opposite Jordan’s Bulls, 20 years ago Sunday:

Granted, Jordan owned the day, posting a 36-5-4 line and exiting the game with six minutes left and his team up 25, and Bryant scored 12 of his 33 points in the final four minutes against a a lineup of Jud Buechler, Steve Kerr, Scott Burrell, Jason Caffey and Joe Kleine, but that’s not how we remember it.

We remember it as the moment Kobe arrived, the day the Next Michael gave it to Actual Michael. Bryant remembers it, too, only as a teaching moment. He even asked Jordan about his footwork during a stoppage in play, trying to absorb every last bit of greatness before his hero hung ’em up.

“I think a lot of people saw the highlights of him, the dunks or the fancy layups. But as a kid, I saw more than that. I saw how he got there,” Bryant told CBSSports.com in December 2014. “I saw footwork. I saw spacing. I saw how to use screens. That’s what I saw. That’s what’s different from a lot of kids who came up during my era. They saw the highlights, but I saw how he got to those highlights.”

And Jordan recognized what the rest of us did — those moves, so familiar, dare we say Jordan-esque:

“Certainly,” Jordan said afterward. “He’s got a lot of them. The biggest challenge he’ll have is to harness what he knows and improve each day.

“That’s tough. That’s experience. The things Larry Bird and Magic Johnson taught me. But there’s no doubt he has the skills to take over a basketball game.”

That performance, and this endorsement, propelled Bryant into the All-Star Game, voted in as a starter, even though Harris was still bringing him off the bench in L.A. Momentum followed him into February, when NBA billboards advertised Jordan’s East vs. Kobe’s West at Madison Square Garden.

And somehow the meeting lived up to the hype:

Kobe touched the ball 11 times in the first quarter, shot it 10 and scored eight. He wanted Michael, who was feeling ill before the game, and Michael answered the call, scoring nine points in the opening 12 minutes. Jordan finished with game-highs of 23 points and eight assists, taking home the MVP and a win, and besting Bryant’s 18 points on 16 shots, but Kobe left with MJ’s respect, and that was enough.

“He came at me pretty early,” Jordan said of Bryant. “I would if I was him. If I see someone that’s maybe sick or whatever, you’ve got to attack him. He attacked. You know, I liked his attitude.”

“I didn’t expect myself to come out here and win the MVP,” he added. ” … I just wanted to make sure Kobe didn’t dominate me.”

Here was Jordan, nine days from his 35th birthday, still on top of his game, on his way to a fifth regular-season MVP and the second three-peat of his career. And there was Bryant, 19 years old, the youngest All-Star in NBA history, on the same stage for all to see. As L.A. Times columnist Mark Heisler wrote at the time, “He isn’t Los Angeles’ own little Kobe anymore, now he belongs to the world.” — BR

***

The trade request

The penultimate day of May 2007 marked a wild 24 hours in Lakers history and Kobe lore. Fed up with three straight middling seasons — a lottery entry and two first-round exits — following his breakup with Shaq, Bryant appeared on New York’s 1050 ESPN Radio in the morning and told Stephen A. Smith:

“I would like to be traded, yeah. As tough as it is to say that, as tough as it is to come to that conclusion, there’s no other alternative. They obviously want to move in a different direction as far as rebuilding.

“I just want them to do the right thing. … At this point, I’ll go play on Pluto right now.”

He finished the season starting alongside Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown, Luke Walton and Jordan Farmar. Not exactly a murderer’s row of Lakers legends. Bryant was not without blame here. His relationship with Shaq fractured a dynasty, and the return of Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a first-round pick (Farmar) couldn’t replace one of the most dominant centers in NBA history.

Kobe Bryant tries to talk some sense into Kwame Brown. (AP)

Regardless, Bryant wanted out. Or did he? After Phil Jackson and Magic Johnson reportedly talked him off the ledge, Kobe first went on Dan Patrick’s ESPN Radio show later in the day and changed his tune:

“I’m so tired of talking. It’s tough. I always dreamed about retiring as a Laker. I just hope and hope that something can be resolved. Something can be figured out. Just something so I can stay here and be in this city and be with the team I love.”

He then went on local KLAC radio and added, “I can only hope that they do something because I don’t want to go no place else. I don’t want to. I want to stay here. I hope they can do something.”

Crisis averted, right? Wrong. That evening, he flipped again in an interview with the L.A. Times:

“Nothing’s changed. It’s just a matter of I don’t want to go no place else. I don’t have much of a choice. When things like this go down, you just sit back. What can I do? It’s like a broken record.”

When asked if he still wanted to be traded, he answered quickly and firmly: “Yes.”

The Lakers, of course, preferred not to trade their superstar, although Kobe later conceded to nixing a deal that would’ve sent him to the Pistons (for Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and picks) and approving a deal that would’ve sent him to the Bulls, if not for Chicago holding Luol Deng out of it.

The day ended with the team reportedly sending an email to season ticket-holders asking them to “voice your concerns to Lakers Management.” Just imagine if NBA Twitter was fully realized back then.

In true Kobe fashion, though, he returned to the Lakers, assured things would get better, and took a torch to the league. Surrounded now by Derek Fisher (July signing), Trevor Ariza (November trade) and Pau freakin’ Gasol (February trade), along with an improved Andrew Bynum, Bryant captured his first and only MVP award, leading the Lakers to 57 wins and the first of three straight Finals appearances. — BR

***

Passing Jordan

Even though Phil Jackson wrote in 2013 that “Kobe was hell-bent on surpassing Jordan as the greatest player in the game,” and we all could see it plain as day, Bryant often downplayed the comparisons.

So, when he sank a pair of free throws 6:36 into a game against the Timberwolves on Dec. 14, 2014, pushing his career total to 32,293 points and passing Jordan for third on the all-time scoring list, and told us, “It’s really not a big deal to say I passed him for something like that. It’s a great accomplishment, but the true beauty is in the journey,” we didn’t believe him. This one meant a lot.

Even though it took Bryant four more seasons, 49 more games, 354 more shots and 5,382 more minutes to get there, he had eclipsed his idol as the most prolific scoring guard in NBA history. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone have scored more points during the regular season.

“I congratulate Kobe on reaching this milestone,” Jordan said in a statement to the Associated Press. ”He’s obviously a great player, with a strong work ethic and has an equally strong passion for the game of basketball. I’ve enjoyed watching his game evolve over the years, and I look forward to seeing what he accomplishes next.”

Nike released a special “Mamba Moment” edition of their Kobe 9 Elite sneakers to mark the occasion.

“He knows how much I’ve learned from him,” Bryant told ESPN.com then of Jordan. “From the other legends, but him in particular.” But his obsession with Jordan came into clearer focus the closer he got to the finish line of his career. Once he discovered he wouldn’t grow to be 6-foot-9, “I started studying Michael exclusively,” he told Baxter Holmes in 2016, and he poached “damn near 100 percent of the technique” from Jordan, he elaborated with Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck earlier this year.

It was that obsession, not just with Jordan, but with greatness, that allowed Bryant to chase Jordan and catch him at the age of 36 with his first two points of the 24th game of his 19th season, and then go on to drop 26 points against players half his age on the Wolves and lead the Lakers to victory. This is why Jordan still claims “Kobe’s the only one to have done the work, to deserve comparison.” — BR

***

Buzzer-beating the Blazers

With Bryant on the verge of free agency for the first time and his feud with Shaq reaching a boiling point, there were whispers that this might be Kobe’s last regular-season game in a Lakers uniform.

The Blazers wish he’d sat this one out.

Much of the first first 48 minutes went the way of the Lakers’ 2003-04 season — disjointed and uninspired, even on a night when the No. 2 seed and Pacific Division crown were on the line. Even Bryant was amiss with his team trailing by one and two minutes to play, forcing a pair of ill-advised shots around a traveling violation and a pair of missed free throws on the previous four possessions.

Enter Mamba.

With 1.1 seconds left in regulation and his Lakers trailing the lottery-bound Blazers, 87-84, Kobe made an impossible 3-pointer around Ruben Patterson, the self-proclaimed “Kobe Stopper.” I re-watched a half-dozen times to see if he traveled. He didn’t. The footwork is a wonder, but the shot was sublime.

Even if he did walk, it’s not like the ref could’ve called it, because he, like all of us, was transfixed by a man taking off with both feet facing the sideline, twisting mid-air around a defender and making a game-tying three as if it were routine. It was so impressive that Patterson asked for his shoes afterward.

And Kobe wasn’t done. You could tell by the look on his face.

Ten minutes later, with his Lakers trailing 104-102 with one second remaining in double-overtime, Bryant took another inbound pass from Gary Payton and in one sweeping motion launched a high-arcing shot over the outstretched arms of Blazers big man Theo Ratliff. He was probably fouled. Whatever. It never touched net, and even the Rose Garden crowd couldn’t contain their delight.

And Shaq, who had spent much of the previous week answering Kobe questions by telling reporters he doesn’t speak Spanish or spouting unrelated math equations, couldn’t keep quiet, either.

“It was a great shot by the young fellow, Kobe,” said Shaq, via the L.A. Times. “He told us, ‘Set me a good pick and we’re going home.’ This is how a great player, a great confident guy makes a shot.

“It’s funny, after all the stuff we went through this year, we still win the Pacific Division. We’re OK, because this is the moment we’ve been waiting for.”

Sure enough, Kobe’s daggers delivered a two-seed to the Lakers, who, had they not won the division, would have been fourth behind the Spurs (57-25, second in the Midwest Division) and Kings (55-27). Sacramento opened the door to No. 2 for L.A. by losing some time between Kobe’s two buzzer-beaters.

As a result, the Lakers earned a second-round home series against the Spurs and avoided the Kings, who had taken them the distance in the 2003 Western Conference semifinals and beaten them in three of their four meetings during the regular season. The Lakers ended up beating the Wolves in the conference finals instead, ultimately losing to the Pistons in a lopsided five-game Finals series.

Didn’t matter on this night, which belonged to Kobe, even though he left without meeting the media. — BR

***

The setting Suns

The first round of the 2006 Western Conference playoffs gave us both sides of the Mamba Mentality.

There was the mesmerizing — another improbable game-tying shot to end regulation, followed by a throat-ripping dagger in the final second of overtime, the combination of which gave the eight-seeded Lakers a 3-1 series lead against the top-seeded and explosive seven-seconds-or-less Suns.

It was mayhem in the Staples Center, Kobe on the verge of completing a massive playoff upset, carrying a team that was starting Smush Parker, Kwame Brown and Luke Walton. He was immortal.

Then, there was the polarizing. After a Game 5 blowout and Kobe’s 50 points falling short in a Game 6 overtime defeat, the Lakers found themselves on the verge of becoming the eighth team in NBA history to blow a 3-1 series lead, trailing Phoenix 60-45 at halftime of Game 7, despite 23 from Bryant.

Bryant attempted just three shots in the second half, deferring to his underwhelming teammates. He finished with one second-half point, on a technical foul free throw midway through the third quarter, before exiting the game with five minutes left in the fourth quarter and the Lakers trailing, 103-75.

As the events unfolded, TNT broadcasters Kevin Harlan and Doug Collins wondered what had gotten into Bryant. Gone was shoot-first, answer-questions-later Mamba; in stepped defiant and proving-his-point Mamba, it seemed. The irony of advertisements for the season premiere of TNT’s “The Closer” running on the bottom of the screen was not lost on anyone. Bryant was anything but on this night.

The conversation only grew more intense in the postgame show, as Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley argued both sides of the debate: Was Kobe trying to get his teammates involved? Or was he punting away the game and sending a message to the Lakers’ front office that this team wasn’t fit to win?

“I think he was being very selfish,” said Barkley. “I think he stopped shooting, because he wanted to say, ‘Those guys didn’t help me.'”

The next morning, L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke wrote, “It was selfish. It was silly.

Now, we had our narrative: Kobe Bryant, selfish superstar, even when he’s trying to be unselfish. But maybe we were being too harsh on him. Maybe we were so used to seeing Kobe take over that it was just jarring to see the Mamba stay in his basket, refusing to strike, even as the lid was being pulled off.

Kobe certainly seemed to think so, telling Plaschke before a playoff rematch with the Suns in 2010:

“People who say that are stupid. That’s just stupid.”

“It’s outlandish, the amount of irresponsibility people have, throwing out statements like that.”

“Barkley was stupid, he didn’t watch the game, lots of people who were critical of me didn’t even watch the game.”

“Hell, no. That’s not my thought process. I don’t think like that. I think about one thing and one thing only, and that’s kicking butt.”

Mamba out. — BR