The night Kobe Bryant refused to score 70 points

There have been two 70-point games in the NBA in 2023 but 17 years ago, Kobe Bryant refused to score 70 points in a game when everyone wanted him to.

Damian Lillard scored 71 points on Sunday against the Houston Rockets and became the second player in just the first two months of this year to score at least 70 points in a game; joining Donovan Mitchell, who scored 71 points against the Chicago Bulls in January.

Prior to this year, Devin Booker was the last player join the club, scoring 70 points against the Boston Celtics in 2017 and, of course, prior to that Kobe Bryant was the last to do it when he scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors in 2006.

Bryant should have scored at least 70 points one month before his historic game against Toronto but the story behind his refusal to do so remains one of my favorite and most underrated Bryant moments.

Scoring 70 points in an NBA game is an incredible accomplishment and it understandably becomes the focal point of the game in the fourth quarter or extra period if a player is within reach of making history.

For example, Portland was leading Houston 123-109 with 2:35 left in the fourth quarter coming out of a full-timeout and kept Lillard in the game even though he had 66 points and the game was essentially over.

Lillard proceeded to hit a 25-foot three-pointer out of the timeout, missed a floating jump shot with 1:50 left, made a driving floating jump shot with 1:42 remaining, and finally missed a 33-foot pull-up three-point attempt as Portland beat Houston 131-114.

Last month, Mitchell had 58 points in regulation but scored 13 of Cleveland’s 15 points in overtime to reach 71 points with his last two points coming at the free-throw line in the final seconds as Cleveland beat Chicago 145-134.

The Suns famously tried to prolong a double-digit loss to Boston in order to get Booker his 70 points. Booker scored 28 points in the fourth quarter and Suns coach Earl Watson used a pair of timeouts in the closing minutes to get him the extra touches needed to hit 70 points during a 130-120 loss.

“It was weird what they were doing,” Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas told reporters after the game. “I’ve never seen anything like that. It is what it is. … But I mean it was obvious what they were trying to do. They were trying to get him the most points possible.”

Everyone on the Lakers wanted to Bryant to make history on December 20, 2005. Playing at home against a Dallas Mavericks team that would eventually be the Western Conference champions, Bryant played a few seconds short of 33 minutes and sat out the entire fourth quarter. After three quarters, Bryant had outscored the Mavericks by himself 62-61 in a game the Lakers dominated 95-61.

Only four players in league history up until that point had ever scored at least 70 points in a game – Wilt Chamberlain (six times between 1961-1963), David Thompson (73 in 1978), David Robinson (71 in 1994) and Elgin Baylor (71 in 1960). (Robinson’s historic night came on the last game of the season against the Clippers in a game where the Spurs’ lone goal was getting Robinson 70 points and the scoring title. Spurs coach John Lucus even instructed his players to foul the Clippers up by 20 points late in order to get Robinson the touches he needed in order to hit the mark and clinch the scoring title over Shaquille O’Neal. Orlando Magic head coach Brian Hill later called it a “mockery of the game.”)

The Lakers knew how special this night was and with 12 minutes remaining in the game, they wanted Bryant to score 8 more points to become just the fifth player to ever score at least 70 points in a game.

Brian Shaw was a Lakers assistant coach under Phil Jackson at the time and a former teammate of Bryant’s when he won his first three championships with the Lakers from 2000-2002. I talked to Shaw in 2015 for an oral history of Bryant’s 81-point game but the one moment Shaw and others wanted to talk about was Bryant’s refusal to score at least 70 points (maybe even 81) one month earlier.

After the third quarter, the players were on the bench and the coaches went out and huddled on the court,” Shaw told me. “Phil asked me to go ask Kobe if he wanted to stay in the game and try to get 70 and then come out. So, I went up to Kobe and said, ‘Hey, Coach wants to know if you want to stay in for the first few minutes of the fourth quarter, get 70 and then come out.’ He looked up at the scoreboard, and he said, ‘Nah, I’ll get it another time.’ I looked at him and I kind of got mad. I said: ‘What?! You have a chance to get 70 points. How many people can say they scored 70 points? Just stay in the first few minutes and get another eight points, get 70 and then come out of the game.’ He said: ‘I’ll do it when we really need it. I’ll get it when it really matters.’”

Bryant laughed when I relayed the story to him 10 years later as he sat in the Lakers film room at the team’s practice facility.

“Brian was mad,” Bryant told me. “He was like: ‘Man, are you crazy? You know what you could score tonight?’ I just said, ‘I’ll do it when we really need it.’ Brian was like, ‘What?!’ It was something that just rolled off my tongue because I trained extremely hard and the physical tools were there. I just felt like I could have a game like that again.”

Shaw wasn’t the only one upset at Bryant for not wanting to make history. Current Lakers owner Jeanie Buss was dating Jackson at the time and recalled blaming him for not just keeping Bryant in the game.

I got really mad at Phil after the game on the drive home,” Buss told me. “I said, ‘Why did you take him out?’ He said because it was a lopsided game. He said, ‘That’s not what basketball is all about.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but he could have set a record.’ I just remember being mad at Phil. I wanted him to let Kobe do whatever he wanted. It was so much fun to watch.”

When I asked Bryant how many points he would have had if he stayed in the game, he smiled and said, “Probably 80.” Bryant, of course, would score 81 points just one month later on a night when the Lakers really did need it. Bryant scored 26 points in the first half of that game as the Lakers trailed Toronto 63-49 at halftime and were down 18 points in the third quarter before Bryant went off and willed the Lakers to a comeback win.

Did Bryant really believe he would have anther chance to score 70 points (let alone 80 points just one month later) when he sat out the entire fourth quarter against the Mavericks, just eight points short of history? “Of course,” Bryant told me.

“It’s really a testament to the power of imagination, honestly. There’s a lot of players who come up now who don’t think 80 points is possible. You think 50, and if you’re really hot — 60. I never had that limit. Ever. I never, ever thought that way. I always thought 80 was possible. I thought 90 was possible. I thought 100 was possible.”

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