If not for an incredible second-half performance from Kobe Bryant, the historic “81-point game” would’ve been nothing more than one of the most boring Lakers’ games of the 2005-06 season.
The Toronto Raptors (14-26), who traveled to Los Angeles to face the Lakers (21-19), weren’t a very good team. In fact, they finished 27-55 that season — 13 games behind the same Milwaukee Bucks squad that drafted Andrew Bogut with the No. 1 overall selection in the 2005 NBA Draft the previous offseason. Yet at halftime, the score was 63-47, in favor of Toronto.
The Lakers looked awful and shot 20 of 50 (40 percent) from the field headed into half, while the Raptors were on fire, knocking down over 60 percent of their shots through two quarters.
Kobe scored just 26 points in the first half, which, sure, is a lot of points for a half. But it wasn’t exactly a record-breaking type of performance. The only truly noteworthy thing from Bryant’s start was that he’d knocked down just one triple before the third quarter.
Watching the game now, the easy shots I missed, I could of had 100 pts! #countonkobe
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) January 22, 2013
Add it all up, and it was another night of watching Kobe and overmatched teammates take on a boring team. Believe me; I was at the game with my father. And at halftime, with Los Angeles down by that 16-point margin, he turned and made the classic sports-related Dad suggestion: “Why don’t we beat traffic and head home early?”
In hindsight, that I convinced my father to stay at least through the third quarter was obviously an outstanding decision. At that point, though, it was no longer about the teams on the floor. We were no longer there to see the Lakers, somehow trailing to the lowly Raptors. We weren’t there to see a future Hall of Famer propped up by a paper-thin supporting cast including Lamar Odom, Smush Parker, Kwame Brown and Chris Mihm.
— Alex Horwitch (@AlexHorwitch) January 22, 2016
Instead, with no expectation of history, we stayed to watch Bryant evolve.
Then 27 years old, Bryant was in the midst of redefining himself during the post-Shaquille O’Neal era in Los Angeles. Kobe’s redefinition, however, involved a few years of pick-and-roll plays with Mihm and Parker. Neither produced a particularly exciting brand of basketball.
“That team that we had was up and down,” former L.A. assistant coach Brian Shaw told ESPN. “The way we were playing in the first half, we deserved the boos we were getting, and that just fueled Kobe. I remember we came out flat and got down early.”
But Toronto’s 2005-06 squad didn’t quite intimidate opposition, either. Led by a then 21-year-old Chris Bosh, the Raptors’ season was mostly remembered for Bosh’s first appearance in the NBA All-Star Game. Bosh was good. But much like Kevin Love’s tenure with the Timberwolves, he wasn’t good enough to win many games for the Raptors.
“It was embarrassing for us,” Bosh said of Kobe’s 81-point game. “That’s for him, not for us. I just had the best seat in the house”
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) January 22, 2016
Aside from Bosh, Toronto’s roster wasn’t much to write home about. Behind him in scoring was veteran point guard Mike James, who provided 20.3 points per game. Next was swingman Morris Peterson, who added 16.8 ppg. Toronto’s fourth-leading scoring option was 21-year-old rookie Charlie Villanueva. The Raptors’ leading scorer off the bench was Matt Bonner, who averaged just 7.5 ppg.
These were the names who filled the box score and gave rise to such basketball ennui on this unremarkable Sunday. And this was the team that Bryant’s squad trailed at halftime in Los Angeles.
Fortunately for Bryant and the Lakers, Toronto’s defense that season was abysmal. Despite boasting the NBA’s fourth-best offense, they still had a negative scoring margin (-2.9 points per game) and allowed the second-most points per game on defense.
Worse, the 2005-06 Raptors were unable to grab a rebound. Averaging just 38.5 rpg, the Raptors recorded the second-worst rebounding rate in the NBA. This team was bad and boring, and fans like myself at Staples Center were not happy to see Los Angeles unable to pull ahead.
Yet the Raptors’ dominance continued. At one point during the second half, the Lakers trailed 71-53. Check out Villanueva’s quote from his essay in The Player’s Tribune:
“I know it seems hard to believe in retrospect, but yeah, that was the plan. We were going to try to stop the other guys — and put Kobe in a situation where he had to beat us by himself.
What’s so ironic is that — as late as the third quarter — we were genuinely thinking to ourselves that we’d executed a really good plan.”
And that’s when something flipped. Refusing to lose to Toronto, Bryant went on a scoring rampage. By the time the third-quarter buzzer sounded, Bryant had poured in 27 points (including 4 of 5 from 3-point range) in the frame to send Los Angeles ahead 91-85.
— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) January 22, 2016
“I really wasn’t thinking about the scoring. I was trying to get us back in the game,” said Bryant, via ESPN. “We were down by 18 points in the third quarter.”
The Lakers were 14 of 21 (66.7 percent) during the team’s 42-point third quarter. Bryant was suddenly not missing, shooting an electric 11 for 15 in the third. Headed to the fourth, Bryant had 53 points.
Still, his outburst was somehow normal. He recorded 62 points in just 33 minutes against Dallas a month prior. He dropped 56 points against Memphis over 34 minutes of action in 2002; he had 56 against Washington in 2003. Sure, this felt like a historic game, but it certainly wasn’t unprecedented.
Fast forward to six minutes remaining in the game. Bryant stood at 60 points. Then, he went off for another hot-streak and recorded 21 more points (for 28 points in the fourth) to end the game.
— NBA (@NBA) January 22, 2016
I was a young sports fan spoiled by three basketball championships. I knew Bryant was a special, legitimately transcendent talent. But I was naive to his potential to achieve such dominance in a single game.
So many years removed from Wilt’s insane 100-point mark, like many others I never realized such a performance was possible again.
“That was something to behold,” said former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, via NBA.com. “It was another level. I’ve seen some remarkable games, but I’ve never seen one like that before.”
Thanks to Bryant’s second half, it wasn’t a boring game anymore. Ten years later, my father and I remain extraordinarily grateful that we stayed for the second half of basketball.
And I still have the ticket stub to prove it — that wouldn’t have been one to hold onto if we had left in the first half.
Credit: Bryan Kalbrosky, Fox Sports