February 2, 2009. 19-31 shooting, 20-20 from the line, good for 61 points, a record for the current incarnation of Madison Square Garden, a building where some basketball has been played over the years. In a career of killer games and 25,012 points- 25 of which are detailed here- Kobe Bryant put that game near the top of an impressive all-time list.
Thinking out loud, here...
This has been a week of celebration for Kobe's colossal individual skills, whether through the countdown to 25K, the endless Kobe vs. LeBron debates, or, with the Lakers and Knicks scrapping Friday evening (5 pm PT, ESPN), the revisiting of last year's spectacular Garden conquest. It's not something necessarily coming from 24 himself. He's proud of his scoring but spent most of the week deflecting questions about it, is teenager-eye-roll over the endless comparisons with LeBron, and seems to value last season's game more in the historical context of MSG than as a spotlight on his own greatness.
He knows how good he is, and knows you know, too. (I, by comparison, would be wearing a giant "I've scored 25,o00 points, 61 of which came in one game at the Garden!" sandwich board everywhere I went.)
This isn't to say Kobe is ego free. It takes a big one to be what he is, something he shares with most great athletes. But I also believe his primary goal in any situation is to win. Win by scoring buckets of points, win by drawing doubles and passing. It's how he defines himself relative to success and failure. On a game to game basis, it's possible to question his means, but not the ends.
But in so many ways, the week's events have highlighted the difficulty in balancing individual and team in the NBA, certainly in the media, but also on the court.
The Lakers need Kobe to be Kobe to be great as a team. Kobe needs the team to be great to get what he wants. (That would be titles, for those who didn't get the memo.) It's all about the symbiotic relationship. The Lakers of late haven't had it. Kobe's game has, by his lofty standards, been off thanks in large part to the Avulsion Fracture Heard Round the World. Pau Gasol hasn't found a rhythm, thanks to hamstring problems in both legs. Andrew Bynum's game has seemingly been dictated by the presence or absence of Gasol. And so on.
Even with the winning, I haven't felt the Lakers have necessarily put it together over the first half of the year. Save a great stretch of games early, the scoreboards have generally said the right things, but the eyeball test hasn't gone as well. They're obviously good, but how good? Better than last season? Even the numbers don't really paint a completely clear picture. The Lakers have lost only 10 games in 42, and are essentially tied for the league's best record heading into Friday's game. Except the schedule has been ludicrously home heavy, and nine of the ten losses have come against teams with winning percentages of .550 or higher, meaning the Lakers are treading water against the league's better squads.
I know they don't think they've played particularly well.
Fortunately, we're getting close to "go time." The season's second half is here, a tough February schedule awaits. If the Lakers are going to take the championship form they developed last season, it'll come relatively soon. I don't know if their record will necessarily get much better- realistically there isn't that much room to grow from a .762 winning percentage- but the quality of play should.
Circumstances have thrown off the balance between Kobe and his teammates. All the moving parts haven't coalesced. That lack of cohesion has helped create some great moments for 24 over the course of the season, but what'll get the Lakers another title is for Kobe not to perform a long run of solos. The orchestra needs a conductor, and the conductor needs an orchestra.