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Which Kobe Bryant Shot Was the Kobe-est Kobe Shot?

The NBA’s third-leading scorer of all time never met a shot he didn’t think he could make — distance and defenders be damned. But which of his attempts best exemplifies his indomitable self-belief?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Welcome to Inefficiency Week. Over the next five days, we’re going to take a look at what we lose when we get lost in the chase for efficiency. We’ll explore the ways it’s changing the games we love to watch. We’ll remember its failures across the pop culture spectrum. And we’ll report on what it’s doing to our lives — romantic, physical, and otherwise.

During the second quarter of a game between the Lakers and the Spurs in 2004, Kobe Bryant made an incredibly difficult layup over multiple defenders. He caught a pass from Lamar Odom near the right corner 3-point line, squared up on Bruce Bowen, gave him just enough of a shimmy to stun him for a tenth of a second, and then leveraged that tiny hesitation by Bruce into an opportunity, accelerating around him toward the rim.

As Kobe got there, so too did Robert Horry, Tony Parker, and Tim Duncan, all of whom jumped to try to block the shot. There aren’t any HD versions of the video on the internet, so here’s a blurry screenshot of that precise moment:

So to Kobe’s left, you had Bruce Bowen (who finished runner-up for the Defensive Player of the Year award thrice) on the ground, and Robert Horry in the air; in the foreground, Tony Parker was closing off the getaway angle to the right; and then, to make sure Kobe couldn’t escape the coffin the Spurs had built for him, Tim Duncan was backing everyone up — and please remember that Tim had not long before been elected to five straight NBA All-Defensive first teams. Kobe was completely and entirely hemmed up right there. Except actually he completely and entirely was not.

Kobe, a basketball master, lowered the ball down some, twisted his body just enough to somehow squeeze through everyone, then slid the ball over onto the entire other side of the rim. Look at this goofy, incredible, impossible shit:

He eventually floated far enough down the baseline to give himself an angle to safely shoot the shot, flipped the ball up at the backboard with enough spin that it’d grab hold of it, then watched as it dropped through the rim, a pile of dead bodies and ash and rubble behind him. It was a remarkable play, and as good an example as any of how and why Kobe was able to work his way all the way up to the no. 3 spot on the NBA’s all-time scoring leaders list (only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone ever scored more points). It’s also, BTW, as good an example as any of how and why he became the NBA’s all-time leader in missed shots (14,481 misses). He was willing to try all manner of impossible things. He was willing to try the shots where it was just like, "What the fuck, man?" The shots where, by merely describing to someone how they were attempted and no other details, the person you were talking to would go, "Oh, so it was Kobe then?" Those kinds of shots. "Kobe Shots," if we’re looking for a term.

So here’s a question for you: Which Kobe Shot was the Kobe-est Kobe Shot? Remember the one where he killed the Bucks? Or the one where he killed the Heat? Or the one where he killed the Raptors? Oh my god, remember the one where he killed the Celtics? Or how about the one where he killed the Blazers? Or what about the one where he killed the Suns? There are so, so, so many. Let’s go a different way than sorting through every single one, though, because that’s a ridiculous task. Let me instead just offer up two of what have to be the Kobe-est Kobe shots of all, and then go from there to figure out which of those two is the single Kobe-est one.

Option 1 is the time that he went one-on-three at the end of a Bulls-Lakers game in 2011 (video below), and Option 2 is the time that he went one-on-five at the end of the first quarter of a Kings-Lakers game in 2014 (video also below). In both of those instances, Kobe missed the shot — but him missing the shot is not what makes it a Kobe Shot. The fact that he even took the shots is what makes them Kobe Shots.

We’ll do five different categories, score a winner of the two for each, and then whichever shot has the most wins at the end is the Kobe-est Kobe shot.

Category 1: Which shot had the higher stakes?

Well, both were regular-season games, and both came before the All-Star break of their particular seasons, so this can’t be a thing where we just look at how far into the playoffs Kobe’s teams were at the time or even if they really had any effect on the playoffs at all. That’s too big of a measurement here. Instead, we have to zoom all the way down to the individual games.

The Kings shot happened at the end of the first quarter. Darren Collison missed a free throw with 4.5 seconds left, Carlos Boozer rebounded it, then zipped it out to Kobe, who turned and sped up the court. He dribbled to a spot from where he felt like he could make a jumper (it was about 31 feet from the rim, lol), pump-faked two defenders, then jumped, double-pumped the ball again, then shot it. The ball rimmed out as the buzzer sounded.

The Bulls shot happened at the end of the fourth quarter. Kobe, after shedding a double team, received an inbound pass from Metta World Peace outside the 3-point line. He dribbled some, scanned the floor, saw where there were the most defenders, then dribbled to exactly that spot. He got past Luol Deng, who was trying to guard Kobe one-on-one, got into the lane, planted his feet, then went up for a right-handed push shot. Deng recovered just enough to get his fingertips on the ball, knocking the shot away as the buzzer sounded.

In the case of the Kings shot, if Kobe would have made it then the Lakers would’ve gone into the second quarter down by two points instead of the five that they were down. In the case of the Bulls shot, if Kobe would have made it then the Lakers would’ve won the game instead of losing by one. Also, the Bulls shot happened during a Christmas Day game (additionally, due to the lockout that year, it was also the first game of the season), and I can 100 percent be talked into the idea that Kobe felt that, in that moment, he was responsible for saving Christmas for the 4 million people who live in Los Angeles. So this category is a pretty easy win for the Bulls shot.

Score: 1–0, Bulls shot

Category 2: Which shot was technically more difficult?

The answer here is the same if we use the eye test as it is if we use actual stats. Kobe firing up a contested 31-footer looks harder than Kobe chucking up a contested 5-footer, and also Kobe firing up a contested 31-footer was harder (he shot zero percent for the 2014–15 season on shots that came from 30 or more feet from the rim) than Kobe chucking up a contested 5-footer (he shot over 63 percent for the 2011–12 season on shots that came within 5 feet of the rim). The Kings shot wins this category.

Score: 1–1

Category 3: Which shot featured more defenders trying to stop Kobe?

This is the easiest category because, really, all we have to do is count. On the shot against the Bulls, there were three defenders trying to stop him (Deng, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson). On the shot against the Kings, there were five (!!) defenders trying to stop him (Carl Landry, Ryan Hollins, Derrick Williams, Nik Stauskas, and Darren Collison). So for this category, the Kings shot was the Kobe-est.

Score: 2–1, Kings shot

A quick aside: Can I say real quick how much I respect Carl Landry? Because I super-respect him. He’s the last guy in the Kings shot. This is him right here:

What’s great about this is this is the exact moment when he decides, "You know what? I’m gonna fucking block this shot." AND THEN HE ACTUALLY JUMPS TO TRY TO BLOCK IT.

He was a good 10 or 12 feet from the play. To block it from where he was, he’d have had to have jumped about 25 feet straight up. That’s obviously an impossible thing. And it made no difference to him. He went for it. He really went for it. That’s exactly the kind of spirit I like in a person, and the type of person I hope to become one day. I want to be able to look at an impossible situation and say, "I’m going to do it." I want to be as much like Carl Landry as I can.

Category 4: Which shot had a better option available that Kobe ignored?

One of the main tenets of a Kobe Shot is that it has to come at the expense of a better option. Throwing the ball to Kobe with, say, one second left and him shooting it over a few people is way different (and way less Kobe-y) than throwing the ball to Kobe with, say, seven seconds left and him deciding he’s going to just hold onto it until the final ticks and then shoot it over a few people.

Ridiculous as the Kings shot was, Kobe really didn’t have a better option. Nobody on the Lakers even bothered to get past half court before the play was basically over. That means Kobe’s hand was forced there, because there was nowhere else for him to go with it. He had to shoot it. It was the best option because it was the only option. (Also, who was he even going to pass it to if that option had been there? The other guys on the court with him at that moment were Robert Sacre, Carlos Boozer, Jeremy Lin, and Nick Young. Give me a contested Kobe 31-footer over a wide open 10-footer from Carlos Boozer literally every time.)

With the Bulls shot, though, Kobe had more time (4.8 seconds), less distance to cover (the Lakers had the ball on their side of the court), better players (2x NBA champion Pau Gasol, 5x NBA champion Derek Fisher, NBA champion Metta World Peace, and Steve Blake, one of the few players Kobe has ever positioned himself with), and also a way better option (Fisher, who has an entire library of clutch shots made in the regular season and playoffs, was standing wide open in the corner on the same side of the court as Kobe). Kobe ignoring all of that to go one-on-three makes the Bulls shot way Kobe-er.

Score: 2–2

Category 5: Which shot featured Kobe in the Kobe-est mind-set?

When Kobe shot the Kings shot, the thing that was probably in his mind was that he was only 54 points away from passing Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list (he started the game out 63 points behind him, but had already scored nine points in the first quarter). Maybe he was thinking that if he hit that 3, then he’d be only 51 points behind Jordan, and that he’d be able to chase those remaining 51 points down during the final three quarters of the game. That’s probably what he was thinking. I’m just guessing, though.

With the Bulls shot, however, we don’t have to guess at what he was thinking. We can know. Because on the play beforehand, the Lakers had the ball and were inbounding it up one with 20.4 seconds left. World Peace got it to Kobe, who was immediately double-teamed by Derrick Rose and Noah. He tried to pass out of it, but Deng stole the ball, then got it to Noah, who passed it to Rose, who then hit a contested push shot over Fisher and Gasol to put the Bulls up one with the 4.8 seconds left. So that’s why we don’t have to guess what Kobe was thinking when he shot that final shot. We can know. Because that’s the kind of player Kobe was: You always knew when he was trying to slit a team’s basketball throat as a matter of revenge, which is exactly what he was trying to do during the Bulls shot. The Bulls shot wins this category, and also wins out 3–2 against the Kings shot for the Kobe-est Kobe shot.

Final score: 3–2, Bulls shot