January 22, 2006 will forever be a special date in the history of the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA, and it will always be one that the Toronto Raptors wish to forget.
It was on that Sunday evening that the two teams faced each other in Los Angeles. The matchup was a relatively quiet one, as the Lakers were a middle-of-the-pack team, battling to remain in the playoff hunt in the Western Conference, while the Raptors were struggling to find their stride. Nobody had a single clue about what was set to happen that night.
As the Lakers struggled through the first half, Kobe Bryant decided that he had had enough. It was time to take over. After dropping what seemed like an astonishing 26 points in the first half, Bryant erupted for 55 points in the second half alone, giving him an unbelievable 81-point performance, only trailing Wilt Chamberlain’s famous 100-point game.
Here we are, 10 years later, and we all still marvel at Kobe tallying the second-highest scoring performance in NBA history. With Bryant hanging up his Nikes at the end of this season, it’s always fun (and sad), to look back on all of the memories that No. 24 has spoiled us with over the last two decades. Of those memories, this is certainly an iconic moment that always stands out in Kobe’s legendary, future Hall of Fame career.
What does Kobe’s 81-point performance mean to you?
Gary: It was the epitome of how spoiled I was as a young Lakers fan. That was year two of the three “down” years of my Lakers childhood fandom, where Los Angeles missed the playoffs, then had back-to-back seasons as the seventh seed in the Western Conference. Even when the team wasn’t what we generally expect the Lakers to be, we had the chance to watch one of the greatest players in NBA history shred defenses on a nightly basis.
A lot of people quickly forget just how amazing this guy was in his prime. He could have dropped 50 pretty much anytime he wanted to. Prime Kobe had some ridiculous streaks such as four straight 50-point games and nine straight 40-point games. His 81-point game was part of a season that he averaged 35.4 points per game. It was all truly amazing to witness.
Ryan: To me, Kobe’s 81-point game is the best individual performance of basketball I’ve ever seen. But at the same, it also makes me frustrated since, when you see the rest of the Lakers’ roster in that game, his prime years were being wasted. Thankfully the team was able to build a power roster just a year later, but it pains me to think about how many rings Kobe could have if they would’ve improved the roster only a few years sooner.
Matt: Kobe’s 81-point game will always be one of my all time favorite performances by an athlete. Even when the team was not a championship contender, he gave the fans something so memorable that it is discussed 10 years later. Although he had a few years of his prime wasted with subpar talent surrounding him, he displayed through that time the tremendous things he could do from a scoring aspect.
What do you remember about that day?
Gary: I remember that the Lakers had been struggling going into this game, but felt like they would break out of their slump and beat a weak Raptors team. When Toronto took it to the Lakers in the first half, it was incredibly frustrating. But then the Mamba went to work. I knew he had been scoring quite a bit, but we had seen him do that so many times that it just seemed like another one of those games. A few minutes into the fourth quarter, though, it started to sink in. The Lakers were pulling away and I just wanted Kobe to shoot every time down the floor. I wanted to see history, and to see just how high he could elevate that point total. I just wish Twitter was around back then. It was actually founded two months after that game, so I’ll go ahead and give Bryant the credit as the inspiration for Twitter being created.
Ryan: I remember being upset at how poorly the team was playing in the first half. The Raptors weren’t a particularly good team and it was a game the Lakers needed/had to win. Then when Kobe started going off, I really wasn’t focused on his point total, but rather the score, and finally when the team got some separation I just wanted to Kobe to keep piling it on. But to be honest, Kobe was so good at the time, that I wasn’t even surprised at what he was doing.
Matt: I had to attend a family birthday dinner, so I was not able to watch the game live, but was able to catch the re-run when I came home. I remember not really understanding how he reached 81 points when he “only” had 26 points at halftime. Then, when the 2nd half began, I could not believe the shots he was not only taking, but making. 55 points in one half is something that we may never see again.
Was this the top moment in Kobe’s career?
Gary: In terms of individual performances, I believe it is. I mean, only one other player in NBA history has been able to score more in a game. And being a center, Wilt dominated inside, around the basket. Bryant displayed a variety of shots en route to his insane point total, in the modern era. Now, Wilt’s 100-point game still sits atop, but Kobe’s 81 is right there with it, given the different circumstances. However, I think the top moment of his career has to be when the team exacted their revenge on the Celtics.
Ryan: Definitely not. Kobe has said beating the Celtics in the 2010 Finals was the sweetest Finals victory he had, and to me, that has to be the top moment in his career as well. Not only did it give the Lakers their 16th title against their arch rival, but it was kind of a personal thing for Kobe and his fans that he had “one more ring than Shaq.” But was the 81-point game the top individual moment of his career? For sure.
Matt: No. Each of the 5 championships he has won have to be ranked above it and I think Kobe would definitely agree. However, one can make the case that the 81-point performance ranks as the most impressive individual moment of his career.
What was more impressive: 81 vs. Toronto or 62 in three quarters vs. Dallas?
Gary: I still have to give the edge to 81. If Kobe had played in the fourth quarter against Dallas, he might have ended up with 85-90 points, or could have finished with 70. Who knows? It’s still absolutely nuts that he outscored the entire Mavericks team through three quarters, 62-61. However, in his 81-point game, Bryant was a tad more efficient (60 percent shooting, compared to 58 against Dallas), and he averaged 1.93 points per minute against Toronto, and 1.88 against the Mavs. They are both so close — basically even, really — but we actually saw 81 happen. With the 62-point night, we were sort of left with questions of “What if…”.
Ryan: This is a tough question; but as Gary said, we don’t know what type of fourth quarter Kobe would’ve had. I think it would be a little much to assume he would’ve scored 19 or more points in the fourth quarter. Thus, the 81-point performance has to be seen as superior.
Matt: Very good question, but I agree with Ryan and Gary and would say that the 81-point performance slightly ranks ahead. Could Kobe have reached 80-85 if he played the 4th quarter vs Dallas? Possibly, but it’s hard to say. Phil did the right thing by taking him out because how many other times will we see an individual player on a bad team outscore an elite team by themselves through three quarters?