In the 2001 NBA Playoffs, Kobe Bryant went on a tear, helping lead the Los Angeles Lakers to a 15-1 record and the world championship while establishing himself as basketball’s preeminent crunch-time performer.
If anyone doubted he was clutch, he would prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt the following year.
Heading into the 2002 postseason, LA looked a bit complacent and vulnerable, as Shaquille O’Neal was gutting it out on an arthritic big toe.
In the second round against the San Antonio Spurs, that toe ailment, as well as the Spurs’ twin towers of Tim Duncan and David Robinson, prevented O’Neal from being his usual dominant self.
Much like he did the previous year when the Lakers swept the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, Bryant raised his game to pick up the slack.
He hit a clutch shot to seal an ugly Game 1 win, then he came on down the stretch of Game 3, finishing with 31 points and six assists as LA pulled away for a 10-point win.
But in Game 4, Bryant was struggling through a 10-of-27 clunker, and midway through the fourth quarter, it looked like San Antonio was about to tie the series as it held a 10-point lead.
Instead, Bryant made a furious charge.
He hit two free throws, then he made back-to-back 3-pointers to tie the contest at 85 with just over two minutes left.
With less than 30 seconds remaining, O’Neal got an offensive rebound, and Bryant worked the clock down, looking for the last shot.
He lost the ball, and luckily Derek Fisher retrieved it. When he missed a jumper, it looked like the Lakers were in trouble.
But Bryant beat Duncan and Robinson to the offensive rebound and converted a putback with 5.1 seconds left to give LA the win and a 3-1 series lead.
It was the last game the Spurs would ever play at the Alamodome.
In Game 5 back in LA, Bryant scored 10 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter to turn a very close game into a 93-87 Lakers win that sent the Spurs home for the summer.
It was an important step towards a third straight NBA title for the Purple and Gold that year.