Kobe Bryant can’t be defined strictly in basketball terms anymore. Once he reached the plateau of Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan, there wasn’t much more to talk about in terms of NBA scorers.
So what’s the context of Bryant’s run of seven consecutive games of 40 or more points? It’s Tiger Woods winning six consecutive tournaments on the PGA Tour in 2000. It’s Orel Hershiser throwing shutout after shutout in 1988.
And, apparently, it’s Minnesota Fats running the pool table.
“Rack ‘em up!” Bryant said as soon as the Lakers completed their 93-87 victory over the Utah Jazz Wednesday night. “Rack ‘em up!”
And chalk up another 40 for Bryant, thanks to a free throw with 8.2 seconds remaining.
Wilt, MJ, Kobe. That’s the list of guys who have gone for 40 in at least seven consecutive NBA games.
Bryant can’t compete with Wilt when it comes to scoring. Chamberlain had two 40-plus streaks that lasted twice as long as Bryant’s current run.
But Bryant is getting
verrrrry close to matching Jordan’s competitive desire.
“They both get that look in their eye, then they go for the jugular,” said Utah’s Calbert Cheaney, who has guarded both in his career.
Cheaney won’t move Bryant past Jordan yet. No one should until Bryant wins four more championships, and perhaps at least one without Shaquille O’Neal.
Tuesday night’s double-overtime victory against the Houston Rockets was Bryant’s most Jordan-like game to date, right down to the flying tongue as he drove the baseline to throw down on Yao Ming. The fact that he did it while hobbling around with tendinitis in his right knee evoked comparisons to the legendary Sick Game, when Jordan fought through flu to drop 38 points on the Jazz in the NBA Finals.
Bryant can’t explain why he’s playing so far above the rest of the league right now, why there are times -- such as his first six shots Wednesday -- when he just can’t miss.
“I have no idea,” Bryant said. “I don’t really know what it is.”
Rick Fox offered this hypothesis: “Continued maturity in his game. He’s always taken tough shots. I don’t know if with age comes a stronger mental approach. I would believe that’s the case.”
Bryant’s willpower is starting to look like something out of the “X-Men” comics. He’s making the ball go through the hoop. He’s driving the Lakers to victories, in words and actions.
The Lakers were supposed to lose this game. They played a physically and emotionally draining double-overtime game against Houston the night before. Bryant and Robert Horry both played 54 minutes. The team plane arrived in Salt Lake at 3 a.m.
Even though a Laker loss would have dropped them back behind Houston in the race for the eighth playoff spot, the Lakers had already won their most important game of the week.
Before the game, “Kobe said it would be easy for us to lay it down tonight, but we’re not going to lay it down,” Brian Shaw said.
He put down the ground rules: Bryant wasn’t going to allow the Lakers to lose. He rained in 18 points in the first quarter and let the Jazz know the fight was on.
This from a guy who wasn’t even a go to play until just before game-time.
He was listed as questionable, as if there was any chance he wouldn’t be on the court. That was going to happen like Homer Simpson is going to pass up the next doughnut that comes his way.
“I love the challenge,” Bryant said. “See if I can play through this in a hostile environment and win the game. That’s just challenges on top of challenges.”
Watching the Laker role players rise to the occasion has been almost as much fun as The Kobe Show. No one more than Mark Madsen. He elevated for a big dunk in overtime against Houston and caught a tip-dunk off a Devean George miss Wednesday night.
Derek Fisher had another strong game of 16 points, five rebounds and four assists.
“Not to be lost in the great accomplishments of Kobe individually, but we as a team have been stoked to see Mark play the way he’s playing, and other guys get opportunities and contribute,” Fox said. “That’s the only way we win without Shaq.”
But if Kobe doesn’t play out of his mind, they’re done.
The Delta Center is the site of some of Jordan’s greatest moments, and the lowest point of Bryant’s career. This is where he airballed those shots in crunch time in a 1997 playoff game. He still thinks about them when he walks into the building. He drew upon them in the fourth quarter Wednesday.
Just like Jordan, who often recalls his failures before he moves on to his successes when it’s time to visualize another game-winning shot.
But this isn’t just Jordanesque anymore. It’s Tigerish. It’s like Barry Bonds at the plate.
And at this rate, it’s close to setting a new standard in the NBA.
J.A. Adande can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.