The year is 2016. At the age of 37, Kobe Bryant decided he could carry on no more. A career spanning 20 years in the Purple and Gold of the Lakers had taken its toll on the five-time NBA champion’s body. At 37, he was still one of the most impressive players in the NBA. On April 13, 2016, Utah Jazz faced the brunt of a rampant Kobe Bryant as the Lakers legend enjoyed his swansong with a massive season-high 60-point display. That 60-point display, in itself, would have been enough to etch his name in NBA history. Yet, 2006 was the year that would go down as one of the greatest individual displays in the history of the sport, with Kobe Bryant firmly in the centre, orchestrating an 81-point storm against the Toronto Raptors at the Staples Center.
"Kobe Bryant 81 points!" was the topic of every conversation in the days following January 22, 2006. Wilt Chamberlain may hold the record for most points scored in a single NBA game, but Kobe Bryant's exploits against the Raptors had far-reaching consequences for the NBA. On a day when the Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers advanced to Super Bowl XL, a game between the 21-19 (win-loss record) Lakers and the 14-26 Raptors was unlikely to garner too much attention. However, Kobe Bryant took it upon himself to drag the Lakers through on a day which, perhaps, wasn't their best collective effort. In fact, the Lakers were trailing by 14 points at half-time.
The second half of the game was when the NBA witnessed Kobe Bryant at the peak of his powers. Just a year earlier, the Lakers legend dropped 62 points in just 32 minutes of action against the Dallas Mavericks. The five-time NBA champion single-handedly outscored the entire Mavericks team by Q3. The "Kobe Bryant 81 points" story, however, would go down in history as the benchmark of an individual display.
When it comes to scoring in the NBA, few players can be listed as truly prolific. James Harden is the first contender that comes to mind. His Houston Rockets teammate Russell Westbrook, Warriors star Stephen Curry and reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo are also among the ones who could come close to the 81-point record, provided they tailor their approach to 'Mamba Mentality'. Is it likely that any among these will touch, or even surpass the 81-point record? The chances of lightning striking twice are slim; chances of surpassing the 'Kobe Bryant 81 points' milestone, even slimmer. Opposition teams have resorted to crowding out James Harden in recent weeks, which, in turn, leaves Russell Westbrook free to wreak havoc. However, Westbrook himself is now on the wrong side of 30. The coming years could see his athleticism drop, which could rule him out of contention.
When it comes to Stephen Curry, the three-time NBA champion is now recovering from major surgery on his left hand. While he is expected to be back for the Warriors around March, Curry will be subject to the same treatment as James Harden. The scoring burden will then be shared by Klay Thompson next season, which could leave Curry little time to accumulate 81 points in a single game. The 'Greek Freak' Giannis Antetokounmpo remains another contender. The Bucks star could, in theory, reach for that benchmark. However, coaches in the NBA are now privy to a range of defensive options. The ever-evolving defensive side of the NBA does not seem like slowing down, with coaches always coming up with innovative ways to stop the likes of LeBron James, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Stephen Curry.
For the foreseeable future, Kobe Bryant will remain in the memory of the NBA as the man who single-handedly dismantled the Toronto Raptors. Can the aforementioned players break the 'Kobe Bryant 81 points' mark? Only time will tell. 'Mamba Mentality', however, will forever be remembered as NBA folklore.