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Let us forget, for a moment, that those were the same Toronto Raptors who lost to an Israeli pro team in the preseason. And let us not dwell on the fact that Toronto, for reasons unfathomable, was not immediately doubling a guy who was in the process of jacking up 46 shot attempts. What Kobe Bryant did at Staples Center Sunday night was remarkable -- something only he, among NBA players, could have done.
He didn't score 81 just because he's the premier scoring talent of the post-Michael generation (even less-celebrated, he's the NBA's best midrange jumpshooter). And he didn't do it because he's on a team that might have a hard time winning in the Pac-10 without him, though that is also the case. What allowed Bryant to score 81 last night is a unique mindset that might best be described as imperial.
There are three types of players in the NBA. Those who recognize the open pass and make it; those who don't recognize it until it's too late (or at all); and those, like Bryant and Allen Iverson, who recognize it and then weigh the consequences of making such a pass.
For most players in the third category, there lingers some remnant of the 9-year-old psyche, some urge to please the CYO coach or authority figure who encouraged/demanded that the ball be swung to the "open man" and that players "make the smart pass." And even if the star player can shut out this voice 90 percent of the time, there's going to be that one time out of ten when the Tracy McGradys of the world notice the big lug in the middle who is wide open, hands up, just waiting for the ball, and they can't help but pass it -- the order of the basketball universe demands it.
Bryant, on the other hand, truly believes that it is better for him to take a fadeaway 24-footer than for Kwame Brown to shoot an open 5-footer. And not just occasionally. Every single time. Setting aside that he might be right, this is still a remarkable mentality.
In psychology, it is said that we all have an "internal critic," and that it is how we deal with this critic that determines our happiness. One strategy, for example, is that of self-disputation: the idea that you will argue with someone who criticizes you ('What do you mean I'm bad at my job?") but not yourself ("I am a failure and I suck at my job."). Thus, we are encouraged to be as tough on our internal critic as we are on the friend/co-worker/spouse who dares besmirch our cooking/dancing/job performance.
Needless to say, Bryant does not need to do any self-disputing. In fact, it is possible that Bryant does not even have an internal critic (whom I like to envision as a grizzled Pete Carrill, perched on the shoulder), or that he somehow off-ed the metaphorical fellow somewhere along the way, perhaps while jacking up those airball three-pointers against Utah in 1997, perhaps while waving off Karl Malone at the All-Star Game, or perhaps in sincerely believing that the Lakers would be better without Shaquille O'Neal.
This is what makes Bryant simultaneously so maddening and so dangerous. After Sunday's game he spoke of pouring it on at the end to "demoralize" his opponents, as if merely winning by 20 and scoring 70 wouldn't do the trick -- it had to be 80. Of course, it wouldn't occur to Bryant that it might have been more demoralizing if Sasha Vujacic had dunked on a Raptor defender, rather than the league's top player scoring repeatedly on Toronto. In a similar vein, sometimes it is when power is withheld that it is truly intimidating, not when it is exercised.
As impressive as Bryant's performance was last night, I thought what he did against Dallas was more so; to score 62 points in three quarters, then leave the game. Now that is demoralizing. Of course, the game was close last night, so he couldn't do that, giving him the perfect opportunity to test his limits. The end result was surreal, and surely 10 years from now we will all claim we were watching the game on NBA League Pass, but it was not surprising. Surprising would be Bryant turning Kwame Brown into an All-Star. But scoring 81 points? This is what Bryant was born to do. Something tells me he is not surprised at all.