It’s been nearly a month since Kobe Bryant played his last game where he scored 60 points on 50 shots. We’ve seen countless tributes to his amazing performance and have done our best to capture the moment ourselves. What we have not heard yet, though, were comments from anyone on the Jazz.
In a blog post on his website, Jazz Forward Gordon Hayward talked about what it was like to play against Kobe on that final night of his career. Hayward talked about the general atmosphere of the game, how knowing the Jazz were unlikely to make the playoffs affected their mindset, what it was like trying to defend Kobe on a night where everyone wanted him to shoot, and getting caught up in the moment down the stretch.
It was those last two points which stood out the most to me, though. You rarely get an NBA player to talk candidly about what specific game situations are like or the vibe when the game actually turns. We forget it now, but the Jazz were actually leading most of the game and were up double digits with under 5 minutes left. Realistically, they should have won. But, then Kobe happened. I’ll let Hayward explain:
We were up double digits for most of the second half, and we led by 10 with about three minutes to go. So when Kobe started hitting shots and the game started to get close, a lot of us were in shock.
It was like being a part of a showcase, or being in a video game. There wasn’t really much normality about it. A guy scored 60 points and took 50 shots. There was something different as far as his aggressiveness. I think every time he touched it, you knew he was going to try to shoot it, or try to score, or try to get something going. He’s always an aggressive player, but that night, he was ultra-aggressive and tried to score on every single possession.
That’s harder to defend than you might think, when you’re constantly getting screened. If he’s got the ball, it’s going to be a ball screen. If he doesn’t have the ball, it’s going to be a pin-down or some other screen to get him the ball. I thought for the most part, we played pretty tough defense. There were a bunch of possessions where we forced him into tough shots. But he’s Kobe Bryant.
I’ve never really heard defense framed this way, but it makes sense. Tangentially, it’s also why the top two-way players who can both be the fulcrum of their own team’s offense while taking up the challenge of defending the other team’s top player are so special. It takes so much energy to be at the center of the game-plan on both sides of the floor, but the very best players can still thrive when that’s the case.
Lastly, I thought Hayward’s close to his piece about competing against Kobe was really great:
Playing against Kobe is something I’ll never forget. I can remember my rookie year, being kind of star-struck watching him play. But when you’re out there competing against him, he is just the guy that you’re going against and trying to beat. And you better give it everything you have. He was the ultimate competitor and I will always remember playing against him. It’s something I’ll tell my kids about. I’ll be sure to show them the video of me stealing the ball from him and dunking—any highlights I had against him. You’re talking about a guy who is an all-time great. It was truly an honor to compete against him.
I know the Lakers are moving on. They’ve parted ways with Byron Scott, hired Luke Walton, and are in the process of looking for assistants. In a week the draft lottery will determine if they keep their draft pick and in July free agency starts. But Hayward’s post is a nice reminder that the Lakers had it pretty good for a while there with that #24 guy.