The late Kobe Bryant was one of the winningest players in NBA history.
Kobe finished his career with five NBA titles, placing him even with fellow Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson.
The “Black Mamba” garnered a reputation as one of the best clutch performers the game had ever seen, and he had his share of moments on the grandest stages in basketball.
Here are Kobe Bryant’s top five NBA Finals moments.
5. Game 2, 2001 NBA Finals
Kobe had been slowly developing into a star during his first few years in the league. Although the development was hindered somewhat by former Lakers head coach Del Harris’ resistance to allow Kobe more freedoms.
But the tide would begin to turn once Phil Jackson took over. Kobe averaged 22.5 points during the Lakers’ first championship season in 1999-00. But just one year later, Bryant was unquestionably one of the best players in the league.
Kobe averaged 28.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.7 steals during the 2000-01 season, playing over 40 minutes per game and becoming a legitimate superstar alongside Shaquille O’Neal.
The 2001 NBA Finals were a referendum on Bryant’s individual growth. The Philadelphia 76ers and Allen Iverson stunned the Lakers in Game 1, but Bryant came back with a vengeance in Game 2. Kobe scored 31 points to go along with eight rebounds, six assists, two steals and two blocks.
Los Angeles never looked back. Kobe scored 32 points in Game 3 before posting double-doubles in both Game 4 and Game 5, with the Lakers wrapping up the series in Philly.
Kobe could easily have felt the pressure after Iverson’s magnificent Game 1 performance. Instead, he responded with pure dominance.
4. Smashing the Nets
The 2002 Finals between the Lakers and New Jersey Nets is arguably among the most lopsided matchups in NBA history.
Los Angeles breezed through the Nets, sweeping New Jersey and repeatedly exploiting the size advantage with Shaq inside. But Kobe was pretty effective, as well.
Bryant was unusually efficient. With the Nets doing everything in their power to slow down the “Big Diesel,” Kobe averaged nearly 27 points per game on 51.4 percent shooting from the floor, including 6-of-11 from beyond the arc for the series.
Plenty of fans still likely think of Bryant as a volume shooter, maybe even a “chucker.” But this Nets series epitomized the incredible talent Shaq and Kobe possessed as a one-two punch, consistently feeding off one another and overwhelming lesser opponents.
3. Reclaiming the throne
The Lakers’ stunning defeat at the hands of the Detroit Pistons in 2004 Finals seemed to mark the beginning of the end.
Both Kobe and Shaq were headed for free agency, and the two stars had reached a boiling point in terms of their personal relationship. The Lakers, naturally, hitched their future to a younger Kobe, who was still just 25 years old. But Shaq had the upper hand.
O’Neal would win the 2005-06 championship with the Miami Heat, finding added team success while Bryant wallowed with an underwhelming supporting cast in L.A.
Bryant has even admitted to demanding a trade in 2007 amid team and personal struggles. His legacy as one of the greatest winners was being tested. But Kobe would not be alone for long.
The Lakers made a monumental move to acquire All-Star big man Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies in 2008. Los Angeles would stampede their way to the NBA Finals, where they were ultimately defeated by the Boston Celtics.
But Kobe and the Lakers were determined to get over the hump. Though they were tested by the Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets during the 2009 playoffs, the Lakers managed to survive and advance to the NBA Finals, where they were met by the Orlando Magic.
Bryant set the tone from the very start of the series. Kobe scored 40 points to go along with eight rebounds, eight assists, two steals and two blocks in a 100-75 thrashing.
The Lakers would go on to win the series in five games. Bryant averaged 32.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks, dominating every facet of the game en route to his first Finals MVP.
Most importantly, Kobe had gotten back to the NBA mountaintop — and he had done it without Shaq.
2. The real birth of “Mamba Mentality”
Shaq might have won each of the first three Finals MVP awards. But it was Kobe who made the biggest statement in the first title of L.A.’s three-peat.
By all accounts, the 2000 NBA Finals against the Indiana Pacers was supposed to be something of a cakewalk. The Lakers had just survived a seven-game war against the Portland Trail Blazers. How hard would it be to defeat an aging Pacers team?
Sure enough, the Lakers won the first two games in Los Angeles. But the Pacers took Game 3 back in Indiana, and they had the Lakers on the ropes again in Game 4.
The two teams battled into overtime, and O’Neal picked up his sixth foul with just over two minutes to play and the Lakers clinging to a three-point lead.
Not to be denied, Kobe took matters into his own hands. Bryant made consecutive jumpers to keep the Lakers ahead and–on L.A.’s final offensive possession–tipped in a Brian Shaw miss to maintain the three-point lead. The Lakers held on for a crucial win, and eventually closed out the series in six games.
This was a definitive moment in Bryant’s career. The Lakers could easily have collapsed without O’Neal in the extra period, with Indiana potentially evening the series and getting to play Game 5 at home. Instead, a 21-year-old Kobe stepped up and provided leadership and clutch shot-making, which would become the two most defining qualities in terms of his makeup as a basketball player.
1. Getting revenge on the Celtics
As previously mentioned, the Lakers were unable to overcome Boston’s “Big Three” in the 2008 Finals, losing in six games.
To make matters worse, the Celtics pounded the Lakers into submission in the clinching Game 6, with Bryant shooting just 7-for-22 for the contest.
But L.A. would get a chance at revenge in this storied rivalry. The two sides squared off again in 2010, though things were different this time around.
The Lakers jumped out to a 2-1 series lead, only for the Celtics to win each of the next two games. With their season on the line, L.A. crushed Boston in Game 6, with Bryant scoring 26 points to go along with 11 rebounds and four steals.
This set up a winner-take-all Game 7, which turned out to be a rather ugly contest.
Both teams struggled to asset their will, but Kobe persevered through sheer grit and heart. Bryant shot just 6-of-24 from the field, but he got to the line for 15 free-throw attempts, finishing the game with 23 points and 15 rebounds.
The Lakers held on for a narrow 83-79 victory, giving Bryant his fifth–and most consequential–NBA title.