I’m a fan of Kobe Bryant and the Lakers but never fully understood what inspired Bryant’s scoring tear, which culminated in the second-greatest point total ever recorded in a single NBA game.
I didn’t watch that entire broadcast until after the basketball legend died in late January. When I did, I sought to contextualize the mystique of the game, 14 years later.
Here’s what I saw, quarter by quarter.
With a 22-19 record that season, the Lakers were far removed from their string of consecutive championships earlier in the decade, and Bryant’s prolific scoring was the team’s only consistent trait. Analysts called his teammates mediocre — the Lakers as a whole, really — but, even so, they fully expected them to beat the Raptors, who were struggling even more in their 14-27 season.
“They had Kobe and a bunch of guys. We knew for them to be in any game, Kobe was going to have to go completely nuts,” play-by-play commentator Bill Macdonald told ESPN later, reflecting on the game. “Who else was going to shoot on that team? Smush Parker? Chris Mihm? Kwame Brown? It’s crazy what we took for normal that season.”
He had a bum knee that night, but Bryant said he wasn’t worried. He ate a burger and fries before the game. The night before, he had eaten a pepperoni pizza and grape soda after a birthday party for his oldest daughter, Natalia, who had just turned 3.
For most sports fans, the Jan. 22, 2006, contest was an afterthought. Most of the world’s attention was turned toward the two National Football League championship games from earlier in the day — and even if you were an NBA fanatic, there were more exciting matchups to talk about.
That would change.
First quarter — Raptors 36, Lakers 29
The Lakers lacked intensity in the beginning. They weren’t playing defense.
The Raptors made wide-open shots and broke off on an 11-to-2-point run midway through the quarter.
Lakers color commentator Stu Lantz observed that the team was “flat as a pancake.” Mirroring the Lakers, the crowd lacked energy, too.
“This is not what you want on your home court,” Lantz remarked.
But the Lakers were down by only 7, and Bryant finished the first quarter with 10 points on 10 shots. His most impressive highlight of the quarter was a winding reverse layup around Raptors center Matt Bonner early in the period.
The Raptors’ 36 points was a season-high for any Lakers opponent in the first quarter that season. It seemed it would take more than Bryant’s scoring to make this game competitive.
Second quarter — Raptors 63, Lakers 49
The point differential was growing. The Lakers were frustrated, and so were their fans.
With half a quarter to go and the Lakers down 44-32, Lantz addressed the soreness in the crowd.
“It’s been one where the fans have not even been involved because there’s been nothing for them to cheer about,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Raptors ran up the score with their starters on the bench. Bryant only somewhat mitigated the Lakers’ struggles. He reentered the game with about six minutes left in the half and immediately hit a three-pointer to ignite the crowd.
But he missed three straight shots after that, forcing contested looks over double teams. It seemed Bryant was still finding his rhythm.
The Lakers’ deficit rose to 15, and the boos grew louder. A couple of good shots gave the crowd a spark of hope, but sloppy team play continued. Toward the end of the period, Bryant missed a free throw, which ended his franchise record-breaking streak of 62 in a row.
“Why not,” Macdonald exclaimed. “It’s just fitting with this horrible half the Lakers are playing that something else went wrong.”
Former sideline reporter Michael Eaves pondered whether Bryant alone could overcome the Lakers’ 14-point deficit.
“No, he can’t,” Jack Haley, a Lakers broadcaster at the time, quipped in response. “And if I’m Phil Jackson in the locker room right now, I’m not burning incense, I’m not hitting chimes — I’m pulling out the cattle prod and waking some players up!”
“Kobe was sitting in his locker, and he was quiet,” Devin Green, a backup guard for the Lakers, recalled to ESPN. “He wasn’t saying anything.”
Third quarter — Lakers 91, Raptors 85
Bryant came out of the half gunning, but the Raptors’ lead opened to 18 points.
“I wasn’t high-fiving anybody. I wasn’t talking to anybody,” Bryant later told ESPN. “I just felt like I was in a different dimension. Nothing else mattered.”
A flurry of jump shots from Bryant cut the lead to 12. Questions rose in the Raptors huddle about their coach’s plan to just let Bryant shoot. Surely he couldn’t win the game by himself.
But as Bryant reached 40 points midway through the third quarter, the Raptors’ lead was shrinking. Rapidly.
“My opinion — and I said it multiple times during that game — how about we consider double-teaming him,” Jalen Rose, the former Raptors guard who is now an ESPN analyst, recalled to the network. “As a matter of fact, triple-teaming him?”
“Once he got hot,” Rose said, “it was curtains.”
Bryant’s tear continued. He nailed his last eight shots of the quarter, including a three-pointer right in front of the Raptors’ bench. The crowd was as loud as it had been all night. Boos turned into chants of Kobe Bryant’s name.
Under the safeguard of Bryant’s scoring, the Lakers’ previously apathetic defense became frenetic. Their full-court press ruptured the Raptors’ offensive rhythm. Mitchell, Toronto’s head coach, became visibly irate, yelling and stomping his feet.
No. 8 had embarrassed each of Mitchell’s defenders.
“Me, personally, I was mad at my whole entire team. … Everyone was a fan that night. Everyone was cheering Kobe on. It was almost like my team wanted to see him do it,” former Raptors guard Mike James recalled to ESPN. “That was one of my worst nights in basketball history. To be a part of that definitely sucks.”
Bryant netted 53 points by the end of the period.
Fourth quarter — Lakers 122, Raptors 104
The Lakers only led by six at the start of the fourth, a moment in the game Bryant usually rested. Not that night.
He missed his first two shots of the quarter and lost his cool when a Raptors player poked him in the eye as he went up for a layup. The referees didn’t call a foul. Instead, they called a technical on Bryant.
“I thought Mo was trying to do what he had to do to stop me, and he couldn’t play defense on me straight up, so he poked me in my eye and tried to take me out of my rhythm, and that did nothing but just piss me off even more,” Bryant later said. “I’m really, really going to go after that.”
The crowd erupted as Bryant checked off milestones: With a free throw, he surpassed his previous career-high of 62. With five minutes left, he hit a three-pointer to eclipse 70. And less than a minute later, he made another jump shot to hit 72 points: the Lakers’ franchise record.
The Raptors had fallen apart, and with the game all but won, the only thing in question was how many points Bryant would end the game with.
“He didn’t have a chip on his shoulder,” former Raptors play-by-play announcer Chuck Swirsky later told ESPN. “He had a boulder the size of Mount Rainier.”
He’d nail another jump shot and hit five straight free throws to score 79 points. With two more free throws, he’d score 80, and then finally, 81.
Bryant raised one finger in the air and walked off the court.
Bryant sat down in front of the media and sighed. By then, news of the game had spread even to those who didn’t follow the sport.
“To sit here and tell you I grasped what happened here tonight, I’d be lying,” Bryant told reporters after the game. “It really hasn’t sunk in.”
He’d scored his 81 points by making 28 of 46 shots. Somewhere, he also found time to grab six rebounds, dole two assists and nab three steals. It was the second-greatest scoring performance in NBA history, behind Chamberlain’s famous 100-point game in 1962 for the Philadelphia Warriors. (Before then, Chamberlain had held both the first- and second-highest point totals in NBA history.)
Bryant explained how he capitalized on Toronto’s lax defense to move the ball quickly and get it back in his favorite spots. He recalled that he was often able to make his move before the defense could react.
One reporter asked Bryant whether he had ever imagined a game like that one, even as a kid.
“Never,” Bryant responded. “Not even in my dreams. It’s just something that kind of just, happened, man. It’s tough to explain.”
But he still found time to criticize himself: He lamented his missed free throw in the second quarter — the one that ended his record 62 consecutive makes.
“I choked,” he said with a smile.
He ‘could’ve had 100’
As Bryant’s game was more closely scrutinized in the days and months that followed, questions inevitably turned toward the Raptors head coach.
In 2012, Mitchell finally opened up about his game plan that day. He named the four defensive schemes he conjured up to stop Bryant.
“Kobe Bryant made some shots that night. He double pumped, he traveled, he spun the opposite way. He made shots that were incredible,” Mitchell said. “You saw me standing with my hands in my pockets? I can’t say on television the things that I was thinking or saying but handcuffed. I felt so bad for my guys.”
I can't believe I've never watched this game till now— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) January 22, 2013
In 2013, Bryant watched a recording of that night and tweeted through the game. He said he’d never watched it until then.
He felt he should have scored more, he said. Years later, he was still kicking himself over the ones that didn’t go in, “the easy shots” he missed.
Had they fallen, Bryant figured, he could have scored 100.