In advance of ESPN re-airing the Los Angeles Lakers‘ title-clinching wins in Game 5 of the 2009 NBA Finals against the Orlando Magic and Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics (7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. ET, respectively, on ESPN and the ESPN App), we ranked each of Kobe Bryant‘s five championship playoff runs, taking into account the postseason as a whole. Here are those rankings from worst to first, culminating with the crowning achievement of Bryant’s 20-year NBA career.
2002: Completing the three-peat
Postseason stats: 26.6 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 4.6 APG, 1.4 SPG
Playoff run: Def. Blazers 3-0; def. Spurs 4-1; def. Kings 4-3; def. Nets 4-0
It was a workmanlike playoffs for Bryant in 2002. He had no game with fewer than 19 points and no game with more than 36. That postseason high came in Game 3 of the Finals, a 106-103 road win to go up 3-0 and set up the eventual sweep against the New Jersey Nets.
The series most worth reflecting upon is the Western Conference finals against the Sacramento Kings, as L.A. came back from a 3-2 deficit to prevail in Game 7. Bryant’s numbers in Game 6 (31 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists) and Game 7 (30 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, while playing nearly 53 minutes in the overtime win) look good. Still, the Lakers’ victory might have had more to do with what the Kings didn’t do than what Bryant and L.A. did to advance. Sacramento shot 2-of-20 from 3 and 16-of-30 from the foul line in Game 7, even after all the controversial whistles that went L.A.’s way in Game 6.
2000: The first title
Postseason stats: 21.1 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 4.4 APG, 1.5 SPG
Playoff run: Def. Kings 3-2; def. Suns 4-1; def. Blazers 4-3; def. Pacers 4-2
You never forget your first title. Before he was surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant, he was simply Kobe Bryant, the two-time All-Star who kind of reminded you of Michael Jordan. Throughout the Lakers’ 2000 championship charge, he showed glimpses of the legend he would become.
Of course, there was the Game 7 win over the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals. Bryant recorded the most famous assist of his career with an alley-oop to Shaquille O’Neal to complete L.A.’s fourth-quarter comeback, earning that group’s first Finals berth. But his biggest moment came in Game 4 of the Finals in Indianapolis.
Bryant had suffered a severely sprained ankle (which Jalen Rose later admitted he had intentionally caused by sliding his foot into Bryant’s landing zone), causing him to miss most of Game 2 and all of Game 3. The Lakers’ budding 21-year-old superstar was incredible in Game 4. He scored 28 points on 14-for-27 shooting with five assists and two blocks, leading L.A. to a 120-118 overtime win on the road after O’Neal fouled out, giving the Lakers a 3-1 edge in the series. If the Pacers had managed to knot it at 2-2, who knows whether the Lakers’ three-peat ever would have happened? Maybe Reggie Miller would have a ring. After a clunker in Game 5 (eight points on 4-for-20 shooting), Bryant followed up with 26 points and 10 boards in the closeout Game 6 to win his first ring.
2001: Almost perfect
Postseason stats: 29.4 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 6.1 APG, 1.6 SPG
Playoff run: Def. Blazers 3-0; def. Kings 4-0; def. Spurs 4-0; def. 76ers 4-1
The Lakers capped the most dominant postseason run in NBA history — a 15-1 evisceration of their playoff competition — with Bryant outdueling fellow 1996 draftee Allen Iverson to win a second championship. And Bryant did it in his hometown against the Philadelphia 76ers. He shook off a 7-for-22 shooting performance in Game 1 of the Finals — when a Herculean effort from Iverson handed the Lakers their only loss that postseason — to average 27 points over the remainder of the title round. He played all but 33 seconds of Game 2 and the entire 48 minutes of Game 3 to help the Lakers reclaim the series lead. He then showed off the versatility of his skill set to close the series with 10 rebounds and nine assists in Game 4 and 12 boards and six dimes in Game 5.
Earlier that postseason, he put up 48 points and 16 rebounds in 48 minutes to complete a sweep of the Kings in the second round. He followed that up with 45 points and 10 rebounds in 46 minutes and 53 seconds to go up 1-0 on the San Antonio Spurs in the conference finals. The only thing that made the brilliance of a 22-year-old Bryant seem less impressive was O’Neal absolutely destroying opposing defenses at that stage of his career.
2009: First without Shaq
Postseason stats: 30.2 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 5.5 APG, 1.7 SPG
Playoff run: Def. Jazz 4-1; def. Rockets 4-3; def. Nuggets 4-2; def. Magic 4-1
Midway through the 2007-08 season — months removed from Bryant demanding a trade if the Lakers weren’t going to improve around him by saying, “At this point, I’ll go play on Pluto” — L.A. acquired Pau Gasol, the type of partner Bryant craved. Gasol was an immediate fit. Even though the Lakers lost center Andrew Bynum to a season-ending knee injury, they still made it to the Finals before losing to the Celtics in six games. Then Bryant went on a winning streak.
First, there was Olympic gold in Beijing as part of Team USA’s “Redeem Team.” Bryant followed that by playing all 82 regular-season games, helping L.A. win 65 of them to earn the No. 1 seed in the West. And to cap it all off, he led the Lakers to a championship over Orlando.
“I just don’t have to hear that criticism — that idiotic criticism — anymore,” Bryant said during his postgame news conference, referring to the question of whether he could win a title without O’Neal. Bryant averaged 32.4 points and 7.4 assists for the series to win Finals MVP.
2010: One last title run
Postseason stats: 29.2 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 5.5 APG, 1.3 SPG
Playoff run: Def. Thunder 4-2; def. Jazz 4-0; def. Suns 4-2; def. Celtics 4-3
Bryant entered the 2010 playoffs with an avulsion fracture in the index finger of his shooting hand and a right knee that needed to be drained three times between the first round and the end of the NBA Finals. After playing 23 out of a maximum possible 28 postseason games, he hoisted both the Larry O’Brien Trophy and the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award, besting the rival Celtics in Game 7 to earn the greatest accomplishment of his career.
There were other postseasons when Bryant posted better individual stats. There were other title runs when his Lakers were more dominant. But none had the drama and final flourish of Bryant’s 2010 effort.
In the first round against an Oklahoma City Thunder team that had three future MVPs in Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, Bryant amassed just 25 points total in Games 3 and 4 combined. Lakers coach Phil Jackson was limiting Bryant’s minutes because of the state of his knee. Bryant bounced back and scored 30 or more in his next six games, taking care of OKC, sweeping Deron Williams and the Utah Jazz in the second round, then dropping 40 in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns.
Bryant closed out the Suns on the road in Game 6 with a 37-point masterpiece that rarely gets brought up among Bryant’s greatest games. He splashed long jumper after long jumper with Grant Hill draped all over him, punctuating one bucket by tapping Suns coach Alvin Gentry on the backside as he backpedaled to the opposite end. After L.A. clinched the Finals berth — the seventh of Bryant’s 14-year career up to that point — he refused to acknowledge the conference championship trophy, keeping the Lakers’ focus on the Finals ahead.
In those Finals, Bryant got even with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo & Co. for the beating they gave him in Game 6 in 2008, willing the Lakers over the finish line with the ugliest pretty performance in the deciding game. He shot 6-of-24 from the field but had his fingerprints all over the victory, from his 15 rebounds to his assist to Ron Artest for a huge 3 with 1:01 left (“Kobe passed me the ball!!!”) to even the coolness displayed by Sasha Vujacic on his two clutch free throws after years of being Bryant’s whipping boy in practice.
Bryant jumping on the scorer’s table after the win — black championship hat cocked on his head, confetti streaming down, arms outstretched in celebration — is an indelible image from his remarkable career.