In the spring of 2002, the Los Angeles Lakers were going for a third straight NBA championship, but it wouldn’t be nearly as easy as their second title was the prior year.
While they went 15-1 in the 2001 playoffs, they struggled a bit in 2002, and one reason was Shaquille O’Neal’s health.
He was battling a painful, arthritic big toe, and it was limiting his dominance and performance.
Against the San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the playoffs, L.A. only achieved a 1-1 split after the first two games at Staples Center, and it was in some trouble in Game 3 in Texas.
With O’Neal managing just 22 points that night, someone else needed to step up. Luckily, that night became Kobe Bryant time.
He put up 31 points on 15-of-31 shooting, six assists and six rebounds as he turned a close game through three quarters into a 99-89 win.
Bryant would come up clutch again down the stretch of Game 4 and Game 5, and what looked to be a barnburner of a series early on turned into a one-sided 4-1 Lakers triumph.
If anyone had doubted that he had become the most clutch player in the NBA, that series offered more proof beyond any doubt.