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Kobe Bryant's 20th and final NBA season came to a close on Wednesday night. He finished it exactly as he spent most of it: remorselessly and gleefully gunning.
And everybody loved it, because it was perfect. It couldn't have been more perfect.
In his last game as a professional basketball player, Bryant fully embraced the Viking funeral that began when he announced on Nov. 29, 2015, that this would be his last ride. With Los Angeles Lakers fans, NBA legends, former teammates, Hollywood royalty, his wife and his children watching his every move, Kobe entertained us all one more time with a performance that seemed, even as it was unfolding, like the stuff of fiction.
Shaquille O'Neal wasn't kidding. He really did call for 50 during an "Inside the NBA" chat last month. Back then, Kobe said no. On Wednesday, he changed his mind.
He scored 60 points — the highest-scoring game in the NBA this season, topping Anthony Davis' 59; the sixth 60-point game of his career, second-most all-time behind fellow Laker great Wilt Chamberlain; and the most points ever by a player in his final NBA game (joining, of all people, Jordan Crawford and Eddie House!). He did so on 50 field-goal attempts, the most by any player in any one game dating back to the 1983-84 season, to lead the Lakers to a thrilling and unbelievable 101-96 win over the visiting Utah Jazz.
In yet another season full of losing that saw the Lakers finish with a franchise-worst 17-65 record, Kobe found a way to go out a winner ... and to go out a winner in the most precisely, 10-out-of-10 Kobe way humanly possible.
How joyously absurd was Kobe on the final night of his NBA career? This joyously absurd:
Kobe becomes one of just four players in NBA history to take 50 shots in a game, joining Wilt, Elgin Baylor and Rick Barry. In going 6 for 21 from 3-point land, he becomes just the sixth player ever to cast off from beyond the arc more than 20 times in a game, alongside record-holder J.R. Smith (naturally), Damon Stoudamire, Vince Carter, George McCloud and Michael Adams.
The run-up to Kobe's 1,556th and final NBA game featured loads of pomp and circumstance, from all manner of "thanks for the memories" swag for the fans to diamond-studded golden retirement rings for Bryant and his wife, Vanessa. Before the opening tip, the Lakers unveiled their contribution to the season-long series of tribute videos lauding the career of the 18-time All-Star, 15-time All-NBA selection, five-time NBA champion and 2007-08 Most Valuable Player:
"We are here to celebrate greatness, for 20 years," fellow Laker legend Magic Johnson said to a packed house at Staples Center, as Kobe beamed from the Laker bench. "Excellence, for 20 years. Kobe Bryant has never cheated the game. He has never cheated us as the fans. He's played through injuries, he's played hurt, and we have five championship banners to show for it. [...] He is not only a great and unbelievable sports icon, but also, he's the greatest to wear the purple and gold."
The ensuing video package featured many of Bryant's former teammates, including former Lakers O'Neal, Derek Fisher, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom — Bryant's smile shined brightest for the latter two, who still rank among his closest friends in the world — and coach Phil Jackson, as well as longtime adversaries and friends Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Gregg Popovich, Kevin Garnett, Carmelo Anthony, Stephen Curry and LeBron James.
And, as is only fitting in a Staples Center affair, it all ended with Jack Nicholson.
"I think I may retire with you, I'm not sure," he said in the clip. "You've been an inspiration to us all, and L.A. loves you."
After the festivities, it was time for one last introduction from longtime Laker public address announcer Lawrence Tanter, accompanied by the thanks of his current L.A. teammates:
Kobe clearly appreciated the outpouring of affection, but he didn't get overcome with emotion, which in itself was kind of perfect:
And then, one last time, it was showtime for the hottest (and priciest) ticket in town. And then, one last time, Kobe delivered. In a big way. In his way.
He took five shots in the first 5 1/2 minutes, and missed them all. But then — wouldn't you know it? — he got himself going on the defensive end, blocking a Trevor Booker layup before getting a pull-up jumper to go on the other end:
And once the first one went down, the basket started to look a bit bigger for ol' Bean, who'd make five in a row and finish the first quarter with 15 points:
He cooled in the second as the Jazz heated up, with an attack paced by rookie Trey Lyles — who was two days shy of his first birthday when Kobe debuted for the Lakers — leading Utah to a 57-42 halftime lead despite Bryant's 22 first-half points. But then Kobe scored six quick points early in the third quarter to cut the lead to single digits, and the shots just kept falling, and the Jazz's defense kept conceding, and Kobe just kept coming, and coming, and coming:
Taking this many shots is, of course, totally insane. And there's certainly an argument to be made that literally taking 40 more shots than your closest teammate — Clarkson went 6 for 10 for 12 points, and Russell went 4 for 10 for nine — is a pretty ugly thing.
That said, this is what literally everyone in attendance at Staples Center and everyone watching from their homes all over the world both expected and wanted to see. It was hilarious, and invigorating, and so patently bonkers as to have been endearing from the very early going. It was Kobe giving himself over to his basest on-court impulses despite injuries and age having taken from him the physical capacity to make good on them any more, and the basketball gods saying, "Oh, fine, all right, just this one last time."
As endings go, it's also about as far away as possible from Kobe hitting the deck against the Golden State Warriors in 2013, reaching back for his Achilles, and knowing nothing would ever be the same. Yes, that devastating injury started a chain of events that would see Kobe miss the bulk of the next two seasons, and, yes, while he managed to stay mostly healthy this year, he was one of the least effective big-minute players in the NBA when he did get on the court. But you know what? Screw it. Who cares? None of that mattered on Wednesday. Not even close. As the man himself said earlier this season, "It’s the ugly moments that create the beauty at the end of the film.”
Bryant became the fifth player in NBA history to score 40 or more after age 37, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and Dirk Nowitzki, who did it just last month. He is the second player to score 50 or more after age 37, joining MJ. (This was also his first 50-point game in more than seven years.) He is the only player to score 60 after age 37. On that score, he stands alone.
He scored 38 points after halftime, mixing in trips to the rim, deep threes and pull-up jumpers en route to going 15 for 30 from the field after intermission. He played all but the final four seconds of the third and fourth quarters to carry the Lakers back from a 15-point halftime deficit. He outscored the Jazz by himself in the fourth quarter, 23-21, including 15 points in the final 3:05 to completely overwhelm Utah.
And, perfectly enough, his final play as an NBA player ... was a pass, a hit-ahead feed for a Clarkson dunk that gave the game its final margin:
Bryant finished with four assists. To go with — we repeat ourselves, because this bears repeating — his FIFTY SHOTS.
After the assist, the Jazz took a timeout with 4.1 seconds remaining, and Kobe embraced his teammates on the court, wrapping his arms around Clarkson, D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, the three players expected to form the core of whatever comes next for the Lakers:
... and then walked off to the sideline, where he found Shaq, his former partner turned nemesis, and shared a big hug with the Big Fella:
Later in the timeout, coach Byron Scott officially pulled Bryant, giving him the chance to exit the game to the cascading cheers of the Laker faithful one last time:
After the final buzzer sounded, many of Bryant's teammates from his Lakers career took the court behind him as he took up the microphone to address the Staples crowd, singing the praises of those with whom he shared the court, the fans who cheered them on and the family that supported him throughout his first-ballot Hall of Fame ride:
"I can't believe how fast 20 years went by," he said. "This is crazy. This is absolutely crazy."
Yes, it is. And, yes, Wednesday night was. And, no, we wouldn't have it any other way.
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