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Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
It’s a milestone for the Mamba.
Kobe Bryant—slayer of defensive dragons, megastar of the Los Angeles Lakers, Hall of Famer in waiting—turned 40 years young on Thursday. Incredibly, not even three years have passed since the scoring sorcerer engineered his final 60-point NBA outburst.
Point production was second nature. He reached or cleared the 40-point plateau 135 times in his career, third-most in league history.
Unless your schedule is open for the next month, we don’t have time to remember all of his eye-popping outbursts. But we can tighten the focus to cherish some of Bryant’s greatest hits.
Since this is triggered by Bryant becoming a quadragenarian, we’ll only focus on games where his point total landed in the 40s. We’ll also limit our rankings to the eight best in honor of his first iconic number and add extra value for significance, efficiency and stakes.
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LUCY NICHOLSON/Associated Press
Like many great NBA narratives, this one starts at Madison Square Garden.
Back on Feb. 6, 2003, Bryant rolled into the New York Knicks’ home arena and promptly buried them with 46 points on 63 percent shooting. But the significance was muddled a bit by his absurd standards of excellence. Considering it was his third time in five games with 40-plus points, no one was really digging deep for extra meaning.
Then, he swept a home-and-home with the Denver Nuggets with offerings of 42 and 51 points. The San Antonio Spurs were next, managing to survive a 44-piece from Bryant. The Knicks took their revenge next, despite 40 more points from the guard.
That was five 40-burgers in a row, and the streak was barely half-finished. Four more games, four more Lakers wins, four more 40-point explosions and Bryant had tied Michael Jordan for the longest non-Wilt Chamberlain streak of 40-point performances with nine. Bryant averaged 44 points over that stretch and compiled the production on a tidy 49.6/47.1/83.2 shooting slash.
“He’s playing so good, it’s sickening,” then-Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich told reporters.
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Date: March 12, 2000
Opponent: Sacramento Kings
The 1999-2000 campaign was big for Bryant.
While it was his fourth NBA season, it was only his second as a full-time starter. He’d also never been trusted with such a heavy workload on offense. His average field-goal attempts (17.9) and assists (4.9) were both then-career highs, and that was true on a per-minute basis as well.
Despite the added pressure, Bryant proved remarkably consistent. Of the 66 games he played, he finished 36 with a point total in the 20s.
March 12 was one of the exceptions, but the best possible kind. Perhaps spurred by facing the Pacific Division rival Kings, Bryant got his first taste of 40-point bliss. And he not only cleared the threshold, but he did so while hitting 15 of his 24 field goals (62.5), snatching 10 rebounds and dishing out eight assists.
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Robert Mora/Getty Images
Date: Dec. 21, 2000
Opponent: Houston Rockets
Bryant approached the offensive end with an old-school approach. Volume typically trumped everything else, and that wasn’t always kind to his shooting rates.
He was streaky, and he was going to pull the trigger regardless of if his shots were falling.
That’s partly because he knew that when they were, defenses were powerless against him. Just ask the 2000-01 Rockets. They hosted Bryant’s Lakers on Dec. 21 and quickly figured out they were in for a long night.
Bryant played an almost-perfect first stanza before misfiring on a free throw in the final minute. Still, once the horn sounded after 12 minutes, he’d already tallied 18 points, making all seven of his field goals (including one triple) and going 3-of-4 at the stripe.
By night’s end, he’d tally 45 points on 20-of-26 shooting. It was the best field-goal percentage he ever posted in a 40-point game (76.9) and the highest he’d post when taking 15-plus shots.
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Date: Jan. 7, 2003
Opponent: Seattle SuperSonics
The NBA record books note this date as one of the greatest three-point shooting displays ever witnessed. Any lingering Sonics fans probably remember it as the night Kobe turned off the sliders.
Bryant wasn’t a lights-out sniper from distance. The league-average three-point percentage usually hovers around 36. He only bettered that in three of his 20 NBA seasons.
But percentages went out the window when he was in the zone. The rim would balloon to hula-hoop size, and seemingly everything he launched would shred the nets.
This night took that to the extreme. He entered it with a season-high of three made triples. He’d double that by halftime. His final stat line featured a then-record 12 three-pointers on 18 attempts (66.7 percent), accounting for 80 percent of his 45 points.
“I don’t think most guys can do that in a gym by themselves,” then-Sonics coach Nate McMillan said. “Let alone in a game where you’re being defended.”
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Jack Dempsey/Associated Press
Date: April 23, 2008
Opponent: Denver Nuggets
From a statistical standpoint, Bryant never authored a more complete 40-point performance. The fact it occurred during the playoffs only makes it more impressive.
Using the game score metric designed by now-Memphis Grizzlies executive John Hollinger, an objective assessment of Bryant’s 40-point efforts would put this at the top. Bryant impressed in both quantity (49 points, 10 assists) and quality (66.7 percent shooting, two turnovers in 42 minutes), successfully steering the Lakers around a Nuggets team that got 54 points out of Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony.
Denver had sliced a double-digit third-quarter deficit down to just five points with seven minutes remaining before Bryant decided he’d had enough. He piled 19 points into a span of four minutes and 19 seconds, rebuilding a big enough advantage that he could check out for good with more than two minutes on the clock.
“The way he was going, we probably could have put 10 people on the court and probably wouldn’t have been able to stop him,” Iverson told reporters.
The only reason this doesn’t rank any higher is the relative lack of stakes. While it was a postseason tilt, it was a first-round matchup between the top-seeded Lakers and eighth-seeded Nuggets. L.A. went on to sweep the series.
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Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images
Date: May 11, 2004
Opponent: San Antonio Spurs
There are stone walls in sports, and then there are the 2003-04 Spurs.
They had the lowest defensive rating of the three-point era, per Basketball-Reference (94.1). They surrendered 100-plus points only seven times all season and held six teams below 70. Opponents shot an anemic 40.9 percent against them. For context, only three teams have shot worse than 40.9 percent during the three-point era.
People didn’t score on those Spurs, especially not perimeter players hounded by Bruce Bowen, an All-Defensive first-teamer who finished fourth in Defensive Player of the Year voting.
But no one bothered telling Bryant. He didn’t just score on San Antonio; he scorched the entire Alamo City. His 42 points were almost half of L.A.’s entire output (98), and they came off clean shooting from the field (15-of-27) and the line (10-of-13). He also added six rebounds, five assists and three steals and didn’t commit a single turnover in 45 minutes.
“[Bryant] made some unbelievable shots—but he’s an unbelievable player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “It’s not like it’s an aberration.”
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Date: June 4, 2009
Opponent: Orlando Magic
Didn’t matter. The Lakers had Kobe, and he had the burning desire to prove he could capture a title without Shaquille O’Neal.
As soon as the series tipped, Bryant showed he was leaving nothing to chance. He controlled both the steering wheel and the gas pedal of the Lakers offense, a setup that exploded his stat line.
His 40 points in Game 1 were the most he’d ever scored in a Finals. His 18 third-quarter points were more than the Magic had as a team (15). His 34 shots gave him the game lead by 21 attempts. His eight assists were twice as many as the closest distributor (Jameer Nelson with four). His 46.4 usage percentage more than doubled anyone else’s in the Lakers rotation (Lamar Odom was second at 20.1).
“Kobe Bryant was phenomenal in Game 1 of the 2009 NBA Finals,” Drew Garrison wrote for Silver Screen and Roll. “He played like a man sick and tired of having ‘only’ three titles, who still had the disgusting taste of defeat from 2008 lingering and wasn’t going to let another one slip away.”
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Vince Bucci/Getty Images
Date: May 19, 2001
Opponent: San Antonio Spurs
The 2000-01 Lakers were a machine. But if anyone could think about matching them, it was the Spurs.
San Antonio had the regular season’s best record (58-24), plus elite marks on offense (third) and defense (first). Just like the Lakers, the Spurs were led by a Hall of Fame-bound duo with Tim Duncan and David Robinson both patrolling the paint.
When the clubs locked horns for Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, fans might have expected a bloodbath. Bryant had other plans, though, and he made it a relative snoozer. He had a dozen points in the first frame, turning a six-point deficit into a seven-point advantage. L.A. built a somewhat comfortable nine-point lead by halftime, and Bryant kept it that way with 15 points in the third and 13 more in the fourth.
His final line included 45 points—the most ever scored by a Spurs playoff opponent—on 19-of-35 shooting (54.3 percent) and 10 rebounds. He played 47 minutes and tied for the game-high with a plus-17.
“I told Kobe that he was my idol,” Shaq told reporters. “I’m serious. He’s playing phenomenal. I think he’s the best player in the league, by far.”
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JOHN G. MABANGLO/Getty Images
Date: May 13, 2001
Opponent: Sacramento Kings
Game 4 of the 2001 conference semifinals had just about everything you’d want in a Kobe classic.
The opponent was familiar and formidable. The stakes weren’t necessarily massive, but it was still a postseason closeout game on the road against a 55-win team. The stats were perfectly Bryant-esque in their display of skills and relentlessness.
As if the 48 points (28 in the second half) weren’t enough, these were signature Mamba scores. He only made one triple, because he only took one triple. He was 14-of-28 inside the arc and a tireless 17-of-19 from the line.
Speaking of tireless, Bryant played all 48 minutes. And somehow, he still committed just two turnovers and two fouls along the way. Maybe that’s because he was too busy going berserk on the boards, ripping down 16 rebounds, including nine on the offensive end.
“It was emotionally draining,” Bryant said, “but to be able to pull through all of that as a team, it felt so good.”
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.