With the offseason in full swing, SB Nation's network of NBA bloggers are intermittently banding together to keep things spicy with discussion of appropriate topics. Today's episode: Greatest Comebacks.
We spend a lot of time around these parts (especially at this time of year) talking about history. Our franchise's is a proud one, full of strong memories and plentiful success stories. The legacy of the current king of the franchise, one Kobe Bean Bryant, is equally worthy of praise. With five championships to his name and a host of personal records and honors to his credit, Kobe has already secured his place in the pantheon of great NBA players, and may yet still achieve further greatness.
But it was not always so. Kobe's story did not always feel so inevitable. When he was first brought in as an NBA rookie (and teenager), it took him some time to settle in, to get some seasoning. The Shaq-Kobe dynamic did not bear fruit right away. It took a few middling years, a couple of sweeps at the hands of the Utah Jazz, for the Lakers to decide that coaches like Del Harris just weren't equipped to handle the team. So they brought in one Phil Jackson, and the Lakers exploded. A 67-15 record, including win streaks of 16 and 19 games, an MVP season for Shaq, and no team in the league within 8 games of their final record had everybody feeling confident that the Lakers would be raising another banner the following season.
But the playoffs are a different animal. We say that nowadays as evidence in our favor, because the Lakers have been battle-hardened for a long, long time. But that team, completely removed from past Lakers success, had no inkling of what it takes in the 2nd season. In the Western Conference Finals, against a stacked Portland TrailBlazers team that was the closest thing to a rival, the Lakers found out. They raced out to a 3-1, winning both games in Portland after throwing the first of what would be many classic playoff stinkers in the combined Kobe-Shaq era, the Lakers looked like they would cruise through to the NBA Finals. But Portland had other ideas.
They took Game 5 in Los Angeles, took Game 6 in Portland, and had a 13 point lead at the start of the 4th quarter, a lead that would grow to 15 near the start of the 4th. With hearts in stomachs and fists in walls, Lakers Nation was ready to panic. But the Lakers were not.
Instead, the Lakers defense turned the screws on Portland, holding them to just 22% shooting in the final quarter. With points hard for the Blazers to come by, they were unable to stop the inevitable Lakers surge. The Lakers scored 15 straight points to erase the deficit, ending up with a 21-4 run to establish the lead they would never relinquish, and the run ended with one of the most iconic, symbolic moments in NBA history.
That was the start of something bigger than we could have known, and yet smaller than we might have expected. Shaq and Kobe went on to win two more rings together before their cold relationship became too much of a burden on things, and now Kobe has added two more to his trophy case, with the strong possibility of more in the upcoming seasons. But before any of that existed, the Lakers were just another untested regular season juggernaut coming face to face with the realities of the 2nd season. Before this game, Kobe Bryant was just some brash kid who was a pretty good player.
The Lakers have been part of bigger comebacks, even in the playoffs. The comeback against Boston in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals was in a more important contest. But no team has ever come down from more points in the 4th quarter of a Game 7. The Lakers were on their last dying breath, and used it to spit fire and consume their enemies. Without that game, without that moment, the Lakers legacy might be significantly weaker, and Kobe Bryant's legacy might be significantly less success oriented. With so much riding on it, it was an easy choice for the Lakers greatest comeback ever.