Well, that was one remarkable night of basketball.
I’ll admit up front that when the evening began, the two big events were ranked like so in my mind.
1. Golden State’s attempt to break the Bulls’ regular season record of 72 wins.
2. Kobe Bryant’s final game.
This is not to diminish Bryant’s bigger-than-life career. It’s just that the Kobe Bryant who mattered, the Kobe who slashed unrelentingly toward the basket, the Kobe who always took and usually made the last shot, the Kobe who willed the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA championships, that guy played his final game a long time ago. The new Kobe, who made about one-third of his shots for irrepressibly awful Lakers teams, well, to be honest, I’ve seen enough of that guy.
Anyway, how can anyone resist the Warriors? People have been arguing about their legacy, their place in history, their chances against Michael Jordan’s Bulls, but all that seems beside the point: No team ever played basketball like these Warriors. To start with, nobody has ever played basketball like Steph Curry. During Wednesday’s game against Memphis, I put up this statistic on Twitter: Curry has made more 3-pointers in the last two seasons than Larry Bird made in his entire career. The stat doesn’t say as much about the two players as it does about how much Curry has helped change the game. Bird was the very standard for shooting excellence in his time — twice he led the NBA in 3-point field goals made. Those two years, he made 82 and 90 3-pointers.
Curry has made 94 3-pointers in the last month.
Different game. Different time. The Warriors play what still looks like futuristic basketball. When it isn’t Curry raining threes, it’s Klay Thompson, who made 276 of them this year, more than anyone in NBA history not named Steph Curry. The team’s leader in both assists and rebounds is a 6-foot-7 Swiss Army knife of a player named Draymond Green, who plays forward, guard and center, defends like mad and, on the side, sets the best picks in the league. Off the bench comes Andre Iguodala, an Olympic gold medalist and underappreciated superstar who embraced his new role and was the MVP of the NBA Finals last year.
And so on. Marreese Speights is a 6-foot-10, 260-pound whirlwind who pours in so many shots they call him “Mo Buckets.” Harrison Barnes is a 23-year-old out of North Carolina, who would be the top 3-point shooter on many NBA teams. The bench overflows with veterans like Shaun Livingston and Brandon Rush and Anderson Varejao, and they all instinctively know what they need to do at all times. And, almost as a nod to the past, the Warriors still have Andrew Bogut, a conventional 7-footer who grabs some rebounds and blocks some shots and plays the game as it used to be played.
So these Warriors were the story Wednesday night, at least for me, and they did not disappoint. From the start, they overwhelmed Memphis with what has become a typical barrage of brilliant passing, 3-point shooting and pure energy. Curry needed eight 3-pointers to get to what many were calling the “magic number” of 400 3-pointers. But it’s absurd to call 400 3-pointers a magical number — no one else has ever made THREE hundred threes. It’s like saying that 150 homers is a magic number. It’s like saying 3,000 rushing yards is a magic number.
Even so, Curry made seven 3-pointers in the first half, and then right when the second half began, he made his eighth of the game and 400th of the season. He finished with 46 points, pushing his season average over 30 points per game. With the game in hand, Curry sat out the fourth quarter for the 19th time. Green had his usual numbers potpourri, Thompson made four 3-pointers, Livingston somehow managed 10 assists, and the final score, for posterity’s sake, was 125-104.
The final record, for posterity’s sake, was 73-9. The Warriors won their first 24 games. They lost two games at home all year. They won a record 34 road games, including their first at San Antonio in almost 20 years. They made 1,077 three-pointers, smashing Houston’s NBA record by 144.
Wednesday’s game was so perfect, such a tidy summation of the greatest team I’ve ever seen, including those Jordan Bulls, and yet … yes … I did find myself turning back to Kobe Bryant, just to check in. And what was happening there, I must admit, was stunning.
In Michael Jordan’s last game, he shot the ball 15 times, scored 15 and left the stage.
In Wilt Chamberlain’s last game — Game 5 of the 1973 NBA Finals — Chamberlain shot the ball 16 times.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shot the ball eight times in his last game. Karl Malone shot it just twice, as did Dominique Wilkins, who never met a shot he didn’t like. Shaquille O’Neal, in the last game he played in the NBA, did not even attempt a single bucket.
Kobe Bryant, in his last game, shot the ball 50 times.
Fifty. Mind-boggling. Ever since the NBA started counting field goal attempts in the early 1980s, no one has shot the basketball 50 times in a game. There have been plenty of players — Bryant foremost among them — who would have LOVED to shoot the ball 50 times in a game. Think Jordan. Think Dominique. Think Allen Iverson. Think Tracy McGrady. But even they could not push themselves to do it. Jordan shot the ball 49 times in an overtime game against Orlando in 1993. He scored 64. The Bulls lost the game. “Just wasted energy,” Jordan said afterward.
Chris Webber shot the ball 47 times in a game against Indiana back in 2001. Russell Westbrook fired it up there 43 times in a 2015 game. Allen Iverson shot the ball 42 times and scored 58 points in a game in 2002, inspiring his coach Larry Brown to offer this meager compliment: “He took very few bad shots, none in the fourth quarter.”
It should be said that Iverson’s 42-shot night was DIRECTLY INSPIRED by Kobe Bryant, who had scored 56 the night before (on a mere 34 shots). “You knew when Kobe got 56, (Iverson) would be looking to have a big game,” Brown said.
Yes, well, that’s Kobe Bryant. When you look at the list of chuck-em-up games, Kobe Bryant stands alone. Bryant had a 47-shot game (in 2002), a 46-shot game (that was his 81-point night against Toronto in 2006), a 45-shot game (in Charlotte in 2006) and two 44-shot games.They talk about how great shooters must have the ability to forget their last shot, no matter how badly it missed. Kobe Bryant was walking amnesia on a basketball court. The guy had 10 games where he shot the ball 40 or more times. He shot 50 percent in only one of those.
You knew going into Wednesday night that Bryant would try to leave behind a night to remember. This whole season has been a grueling affair, with a beat-up Bryant playing terrible basketball. It was often hard to tell whether Bryant’s insistence on firing up bricks was supremely sad or oddly inspiring. It was probably a little bit of both. It’s never fun watching a sporting legend deteriorate before your very eyes. And yet, you could not help but sense how much he loved it all — the scoring, the adulation, the feeling of having every eye in the arena on you — and it was stirring to see how unwilling he was to let it go. Here was someone raging against the dying of the light.
The advanced numbers have never been overly kind to Bryant. By player-efficiency rating, he was never the best player in the league or even the second-best. The same is true if you use Win Shares or Value Over Replacement Player. He was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive first team nine times, but the numbers never backed up that he was that great of a defender. And he missed 14,481 shots. That is far and away the most for any player:
1. Kobe Bryant, 14,481 misses
2. John Havlicek, 13,417
3. Elvin Hayes, 13,296
4. Karl Malone, 12,682
5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 12,470
Michael Jordan is next on the list — Kobe missed 2,000 more shots than Jordan did. Bryant’s hunger to shoot, his unwillingness to share, his fury for the fight made him unique. When it turned out that Los Angeles wasn’t quite big enough for both him and Shaq, it was Shaq who left, and Kobe who won two more titles in purple and gold.
Wednesday night’s magic show was once again provided the Golden State Warriors. But in the end, yes, it was Kobe Bryant who reminded us of the extreme power of human stubbornness. He scored 60 points by simply refusing to stop shooting. The crowd wanted it. The analysts wanted it. The countless NBA players who had recorded video tributes wanted it. Jack Nicholson wanted it. Most of all, Kobe wanted it. His 50 shots included some of the ugliest you’ve ever seen. But, like always, he kept shooting. He simply wore down everyone else. The Utah players, with nothing on the line, seemed to back off by the end. Nobody ever won a game of chicken with Kobe Bryant.
Yes, people will always remember Kobe Bryant’s last game. I suppose, when you get through everything else, that was the point. On this historic night in Golden State, when the Warriors clinched their place in NBA lore, Kobe’s final game was supposed to be the touching sideshow. But Kobe Bryant never could stand being the second act. That’s what made him great.