Tuesday's edition of ESPN's NBA Coast to Coast program included highlights of every point Kobe Bryant scored in his record setting 61 point outburst in Madison Square Garden plus a breakdown of how he created the 41 points that he scored on 19 made field goal attempts. Here is that chart:
Isolation: 16 points
Off screen: 9 points
Spot up: 6 points
Pick and Roll: 4 points
Transition: 4 points
Cut: 2 points
Of course, Bryant also shot 20-20 from the free throw line, so that breakdown is not really complete because it does not categorize the situations in which he drew those fouls. Tim Legler filled in some of those blanks by describing what he thought while watching Bryant's performance: "Kobe Bryant is the only offensive player in the NBA who does not have a weakness. There is nothing he cannot do on the court offensively...It is time that we start giving this man more credit for what kind of a shooter he is. Typically, when you start talking about the great shooters in the league the first thing you think of are guys who can catch and shoot, have that pure stroke, guys who are open shooters who would knock down the most open looks. When you look at Kobe Bryant, the degree of difficulty on the shots that he makes--particularly his midrange pullup game--he does not really take a lot of uncontested shots. Most of those 18-22 foot shots he has a hand in his face and yet he is so pure, so perfect with his release--we just don't talk about that enough because we think of him as a scorer. This guy is as pure a shooter as there is in the league because he is so precise and he has worked so hard at becoming such a great shooter through tireless work ethic."
Before you even think of asking whether Bryant should be taking contested shots you should understand that if you are a great shooter/scorer and the defense is single covering you, shooting the ball is most likely a higher percentage play than passing to a teammate who is also single covered and much less capable of creating a high percentage shot. Remember, the Knicks did not trap Bryant for the most part, so if he did not take a contested shot then someone else would be taking a contested shot--someone who is much less likely to make that shot.
Jamal Mashburn added, "He reminds me a lot of what Allan Houston used to do with a hand in his face, those 1-2 pullup jump shots; he has the ability to elevate and get those shots off but what impresses me more about Kobe Bryant is his mental approach to the game. He understands that Andrew Bynum is going to be out for some time. He's going to go out there and really establish himself and his team as winners, not play down to the Knicks but elevate above the Knicks. To score 61 points--I've been in the 50 range a couple times but to score 60 is a whole other level. That is a lot more shot attempts, a lot more effort." Mashburn concluded with a very bold statement: "He can reach the 100 plateau."
I think that people who have never played basketball or were never good enough at any level to put up serious point totals simply do not fully comprehend just how difficult it is to score 60 points, let alone to do so in the context of the game (see below for what I mean by "context"). I've played recreational league basketball for decades and the most points I've scored at any level is 39; in general, I have been a good shooter relative to the competition that I have played against but it takes a lot of energy to score that many points even in a rec league, so to drop 60-plus points on elite athletes is amazing. I hit eight three pointers and shot a high percentage in my career-high game, so I think that I would have to play an almost perfect game to even approach 50 points and I don't think that there is any way that I could score 60. Former NBA players like Legler and Mashburn appreciate Bryant's high scoring accomplishments in a way that a lot of journalists and fans may not; Legler and Mashburn understand just how hard it is to score 60 points and what kind of skill set and endurance this requires.
This was not just a case of a guy getting hot or someone taking shots that are outside of his normal repertoire. I mean, Bryant obviously was hot--he shot 19-31 from the field--but he played the game within the context of his skill set and the options that the defense left open to him; as New York Coach Mike D'Antoni candidly admitted, New York elected not to double team Bryant because he is a very good passer and because D'Antoni hoped that Bryant would "shoot himself out." Apparently, D'Antoni did not realize that the Lakers were 64-30--now, 65-30--when Bryant scores at least 40 points, so that "shooting himself out" strategy is not a game plan that will be headed for the Hall of Fame in Springfield a la Bill Belichick's famous Super Bowl game plan (as a defensive coordinator for the Giants) that went straight to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.
It's funny--no, actually, it's sad--to see people try to denigrate Bryant's performance by citing the quality of the opponent or Bryant's lack of rebounds or the idea that even though the Lakers won this will set a bad precedent for future games in terms of Bryant shooting too much. The quality of opponent argument is silly--this version of Madison Square Garden has stood for 40 years, the Knicks had lousy teams for many of those seasons and no one else ever scored as many points as Bryant did. Also, in Michael Jordan's "double nickel" game he shot more often than Bryant (37 field goal attempts) and less accurately (.568 compared to .613) and he had four rebounds and two assists compared to Bryant's zero rebounds and three assists. As for the "bad precedent" idea, Bryant's entire body of work proves that the Lakers do very well when he scores 40-plus points and when one also considers that he has been his team's leading playmaker for most of his career it is silly to even suggest that Bryant is going to suddenly just start jacking up shots randomly and not keep his teammates involved.
Whenever anyone questions Bryant's motives or conduct in high scoring games, I always refer back to Larry Bird. Bird used to ask what the scoring record was in various arenas and then deliberately set out to break that mark; that was his way of challenging and motivating himself but imagine what the outcry would be now if Bryant brazenly declared that he was trying to do something like that. Also, just nine days after Kevin McHale set a Boston franchise record by scoring 56 points, Bird topped that total by dropping 60, but no one talks about how Bird got his final few points to reach 60. The Celtics had the game well in hand but began fouling the Hawks to get the ball back so that Bird could launch more shots.
When I interviewed Julius Erving--who had four 50 point regular season games in the ABA but whose NBA regular season career high was 45 points--he told me that he thought it was "crass" to try to pad one's individual statistics (in any category, whether going for a scoring record or a triple double) when the game is well in hand; he said that the bench players work hard in practice and once the outcome is decided they deserve the opportunity to get on the court and perform (he was not speaking about Bird specifically but rather answering a general question about players going out of their way to reach certain statistical milestones, such as Ricky Davis' infamous attempt to concoct a triple double by shooting at the wrong basket and intentionally missing in order to create a 10th "rebound"). When Erving's Sixers had the game won--and they posted the best regular season record in the NBA from 1976-83--Erving went to the bench instead of staying on the court to ring up 50 point games.
Let me be perfectly clear: I don't think that Bryant has padded his numbers in his high scoring games and it is worth noting that in 2005 he sat out the entire fourth quarter of a rout after outscoring Dallas 62-61 in the first three quarters--but anyone who is going to say one bad thing about Bryant's 50 or 60 point games better do a whole dissertation about the way that Bird and many other players took extraordinary measures to amass their best point totals. Either Bryant's critics do not know the history behind several of the 50 and 60 point games by other players or they think that no one else remembers such things but their weak arguments don't pass muster with anyone who knows the history of the game. Even Wilt Chamberlain's legendary 100 point performance degenerated a bit at the end, with the Knicks fouling Chamberlain's teammates before Chamberlain could get the ball and Chamberlain's Warriors retaliating by fouling the Knicks in order to get the ball back and feed Chamberlain so that he could reach triple figures (the Warriors won 169-147, so neither team was fouling for any strategic reason in terms of trying to change the outcome of the game).
For the record, the Lakers are 5-0 in Bryant's 60 point games and it cannot be seriously suggested that he padded his totals in any of them: in addition to the aforementioned Dallas game, the Lakers overcame a double digit deficit in his 81 point game versus Toronto, they beat Portland by just five when he scored 65 points, they beat Memphis by two when he scored 60 and he sat out the final moments at Madison Square Garden when he could easily have added more points to his total on Monday.