Sunday marks Kobe Bryant’s birthday. The late Los Angeles Lakers legend would have turned 42 years old. Instead, the occasion will be marked by the start of “Mamba Week,” a celebration of his career by Nike that will include the company’s first release of his signature sneakers and jersey since his death in a helicopter crash in January that claimed the lives of his daughter, Gianna, and seven others on a hillside in Calabasas, California.
Los Angeles and Orange counties are planning to honor him on Monday with “Kobe Bryant Day,” the annual date that coincides with his retired jersey numbers 8 and 24. The Lakers also plan to wear their alternate Black Mamba jerseys for Monday’s pivotal Game 4 of their first-round series with the Portland Trail Blazers. The jerseys will include a commemorative heart patch on the right shoulder with Gianna’s No. 2 inside of it.
With Bryant’s birthday falling during the NBA playoffs for the first time in history, we here at Yahoo Sports NBA are honoring the legend by remembering the eight greatest moments of his illustrious playoff career.
The first of many playoff game-winners
"Ten, nine, eight. Everything was going in slow motion. It's a situation you dream about as a kid."
With Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Phoenix Suns slipping away from him and a Los Angeles Lakers dynasty yet to win its first title staring a tied series in the face, Bryant isolated against All-Defensive point guard Jason Kidd down 96-95 with 10 seconds remaining. Bryant’s crossover revealed the left elbow, where he elevated over Kidd and a hedging Rodney Rogers to calmly drill the game-winner.
Afterwards, Lakers teammate Ron Harper told reporters of the then-21-year-old, “Kobe Bryant is one of those guys you just sit back and just wait to see what he’s going to do. I don’t know how he made the shot. ... What he told me, ‘That was like me playing outside alone, and I was 12 and I’m thinking, man, this is great.’ He’s a kid who makes some mistakes, but comes out and just plays hard. That was a great shot.”
“I thought I threw the ball too high. Shaq went up and got it, I was like, ‘Damn!’”
The Lakers trailed the Portland Trail Blazers by as many as 15 points in the fourth quarter of Game 7 in the 2000 Western Conference finals. That lead was erased by a collective effort, but it was Bryant who sealed the victory. A pair of free throws and a jumper over Scottie Pippen gave them their first four-point cushion of the evening, and The Lob from Bryant to Shaquille O’Neal put the punctuation on their ticket to the Finals.
Asked afterward if Bryant had elevated himself to co-stardom with 25 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and four blocks in a Game 7, O’Neal told the L.A. Times’ J.A. Adande, “I think so. Kobe’s a great player.”
His arrival on the Finals scene
“Ain’t nothing wrong with that man’s ankle. I’ve been trying to tell you that.”
Bryant missed Game 3 of the 2000 Finals with a badly sprained ankle, opening the door for the Indiana Pacers to cut a 2-0 series deficit in half. The Pacers threatened to even the series when O’Neal fouled out with 2:33 remaining in overtime of Game 4 and the Lakers clinging to a 112-109 lead. Bryant scored six of the Lakers’ next eight points and blocked an Austin Croshere layup attempt to singlehandedly deliver a 120-118 victory, all but clinching the franchise’s first title since 1988 and launching his superstardom.
Bryant told reporters of taking over a pivotal Finals game, “This is the game I’ve been dreaming about, to be honest with you. I dream about it every day.” Keep in mind this is a 21-year-old saying these things.
“When things get thick, you look up at the fans, and everybody is waving towels, and it’s like a crescendo, you lose yourself in the moment,” he said after scoring 22 of his 28 points after halftime. “You don’t feel pressure. You’re consumed by the game. It doesn’t matter what the score is, it’s just buried in the moment.”
A superstar ascendant
“I just wanted to run and push myself to the point of exhaustion.”
In the 2001 Western Conference semifinals, the Lakers held a 3-0 series lead against a Sacramento Kings team that had pushed them to the limit in the first round a year prior and would push them to seven games in the conference finals the following year. They had yet to lose a playoff game and were looking to put the finishing touches on one of the most dominant postseason runs in NBA history, so Bryant went to work. And work he did. His 48 points and 16 rebounds over 48 minutes completed the sweep in brilliant fashion.
“He’s 22 years of age,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said of a superstar ascending to levels unseen since Michael Jordan. “I don’t know what you were like when you were 22, but I doubt that you’d want to be reported about every day, about your behavior and how mature you were at that age. But his enthusiasm infuses this basketball club. That’s a real important factor to remember, that he’s got the energy, the drive, the moxie and also a feel, an uncanny instinctual feel for this basketball game that’s really showing.”
Dunking on the Twin Towers
“I think he's the best player in the league, by far.”
In his very next game following the sweep of the Kings, Bryant set the tone for a sweep of the rival San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of the 2001 Western Conference finals, posting a 45-point, 10-rebound double-double in a convincing victory. His dominance was on full display to start the third quarter, when he posted Antonio Daniels on the baseline, spun and dunked on Spurs twin towers Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
In the game’s aftermath, O’Neal told Bryant, “You’re my idol,” and Lakers forward Horace Grant — famed teammate of Jordan on the early 1990s Chicago Bulls — continually referred to Bryant simply as “No. 23.”
“It’s probably the biggest shot I’ve hit in my career, period.”
With his Lakers running on fumes in their fourth Finals appearance in five years, having already lost Game 1 against the Detroit Pistons, Bryant came through in the clutch. Again. The Lakers trailed by six with 40 second remaining in regulation, but an O’Neal three-point play and a Chauncey Billups miss set the stage for Bryant’s heroics. He rose from the floor as if Richard Hamilton was nowhere in the vicinity and drilled the game-tying triple with 2.1 seconds left. Bryant scored or assisted on the Lakers’ first eight points in overtime, finishing what would be their lone Finals win that season with 33 points and seven assists.
“It’s all about rising to the challenge,” Bryant soon told reporters. “High stakes. I know I can rise to that.”
Added Jackson, “Well, we always believe Kobe can make miracle shots.”
Back on top
“I just want it so bad, that’s all. I just want it really bad.”
With his first championship without O’Neal by his side hanging in the balance, Bryant made a statement in Game 1 against the Orlando Magic: Nobody was stopping him. He nearly outscored Orlando’s entire starting lineup, dropping 40 points (without a 3-pointer!), eight rebounds, eight assists, two blocks and a pair of steals in a 100-75 victory. It was the first dominant outing of his most impressive Finals performance.
Asked how the Magic might stop Bryant going forward, Dwight Howard said, “Pray that he does miss.”
Revenge by sheer will
“This one is by far the sweetest, because it’s them.”
Bryant had been shrugging off the Lakers-Celtics rivalry all series, downplaying how hard he took his 2008 Finals loss to Boston. He was far from his best in Game 7, telling reporters he “was on E ... really, really tired,” and that weariness was revealed in his 6-for-24 shooting effort and four turnovers to just two assists.
But when he tasted victory, he swallowed the Celtics whole. In a defensive battle that saw the score in the fifties well into the fourth quarter, Bryant broke through for four straight points to swing the score in the Lakers’ favor midway through the final frame. In the fourth quarter alone, he got to the line for eight of his 15 free throws, grabbed four of his 15 rebounds and assisted on Metta World Peace’s backbreaking 3-pointer with 1:01 remaining in an eventual 83-79 victory. He willed himself to a fifth and final championship.
“I was just lying to you guys,” Bryant, with his daughter, Gianna, at his side, told reporters of his attempts to downplay the rivalry. “When you’re in the moment, you have to suppress that ... but you guys know what a student I am of the game. I know every series the Lakers have played in, and I know every Celtics series. I know every statistic. It meant the world to me, but I couldn’t focus on that. I had to focus on playing.”
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