- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Is 81 enough?
I'd say so. I'd say all those pre-Christmas wails about Kobe Bryant ripping us off by hanging 62 points on the Dallas Mavericks in three quarters and then sitting out the fourth can suddenly be recalled with a chuckle.
Turns out Kobe's Dec. 20 detonation was not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for No. 8 to make a run at 80-something points. No one was cheated after all.
Maybe Kobe and his pal Phil Jackson, when they reached that joint decision to stop abusing the Mavs because the Lakers were up by 34, knew they wouldn't have to wait long for another chance at it during an up-for-grabs game.
Why not? You can believe anything on a night like this.
Kobe's chance dutifully materialized almost exactly a month later, on a Sunday that was supposed to belong to gridiron football. You know. The table-setter for Super Bowl Extra Large and all that.
Sunday will be remembered as the best day in the NBA in a long, long time. There was a nationally televised buzzer beater in Minnesota from Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala to cap a 19-point comeback in the afternoon ... and then Seattle's Ray Allen beating Phoenix with a way-out buzzer bomb at the horn of overtime No. 2 in a 152-149 throwback thriller ... and then simply the greatest individual performance ever recorded: Bryant's 81 points in a 122-104 come-from-behind victory over the Toronto Raptors.
Yes. Better than Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point night.
You'll recall, sadly, that there's no footage of Chamberlain rumbling for triple digits in Hershey, Pa., on March 2, 1962. Which makes it tough to commission an in-depth analysis comparing Wilt's feat (scoring 100 of his team's 169 points that day) to Kobe's (81 of 122). But there's really no need. The folks who did see the 100-pointer and the game's historians would be forced to tell you that the entire fourth quarter was a back-and-forth scramble between one team trying desperately to get Wilt the record and another trying to keep him from getting it. Wilt himself is quoted on the Basketball Hall of Fame's Web site as calling that fourth quarter "a farce."
In the forthcoming flood of Kobe replays, you'll see that there's nothing farcical about Bryant hauling the Lakers back from a 71-53 deficit. You'll see a Raps team that kept the game sufficiently close in the final quarter to keep Kobe out there shooting, and nary an intentional foul by the Lakers to get the ball back (as Wilt needed).
Against a Toronto team that somehow held him to 11 points when the teams met in early December -- which also has to be some historic footage now -- Bryant wound up with 55 points after halftime. Fifty-five. For a little perspective, please note that matches the best scoring game in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career. That's the same Abdul-Jabbar who, before becoming a Lakers assistant coach, was merely the NBA's all-time scoring leader.
Don't forget, furthermore, that no less an authority than Michael Jordan has been known to say that a perimeter player has it way harder when it comes to making a legitimate run at Wilt's record, taking an array of longer and/or tougher shots. Factor in the ball-handling responsibilities and the energy required to play defense all over the floor and you can understand MJ's theory. This might also help back it up: Jordan himself topped out at 69 points as his one-night best and needed overtime to get there.
No offense to the late, great Chamberlain, but he was better positioned to dominate a box score back then with the overwhelming size and strength advantages he possessed, especially given the lack of defensive sophistication in those days. Some of you will inevitably counter with the claim that Kobe had the benefit of a 3-point line, but don't exaggerate. Having the long-ball option added only seven extra points to Bryant's total.
With a mere 74, he'd still have registered the richest single-game scoring output in NBA history by anyone not named Wilt.
With 81, so soon after so many opined that he had blown his chance to ever scrape that stratosphere, Bryant has reminded us what we all should know by now about him.
Whatever you think about the game's foremost love-him-or-loathe-him face, and the ongoing debate about how much he shoots, you always have to be ready for What's Next with No. 8.
Chances are it'll be something to dissect for days and days.
Chances are, on the thinnest and neediest team in Jackson's ring-filled history, it won't be the last time Kobe has the forum to fling 40-something shots at history.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
9hMatt Walks, ESPN.com