Dream Week began here at the Garden with a performance for the ages. Now to see if LeBron James cares to top it Wednesday night when he and the Cavaliers come in for the second of this tantalizing trifecta of games.
Kobe Bryant scored 61 points Monday night to set a record at the current Madison Square Garden and lead the Lakers over the Knicks, 126-117.
"It's a blessing to do what you love and have moments like this," Bryant said.
It's especially gratifying when your moment is etched into the history of one of the most famous basketball stages of all time.
Bernard King used to hold the record at the current Garden for most points in an NBA game with 60, which he scored on Christmas Day 1984 in a losing effort against the Nets. The previous opponents' mark was the memorable "double-nickels" performance by Michael Jordan, wearing No. 45 and his old Air Jordans, in his first game back at the Garden after his comeback on March 28. 1995. Kobe's pal LeBron scored 50 points at the Garden on March 5, 2008.
Like Jordan's game in '95, the sellout crowd of 19,763 fans last night roared for Bryant in the typical way the Garden faithful treats basketball royalty. He also was serenaded with chants of "MVP!" as he walked off the court, finger in the air, with 1:48 left in the game.
"These are nights when Kobe's on fire," Phil Jackson said. "He burns hot."
There was something different about this burn. Bryant was all business from his first shot, a pull-up 44 seconds into the game, and methodically went through Knicks defenders, from Quentin Richardson to Jared Jeffries to Wilson Chandler. And the Knicks could feel it, too. Kobe has had these assassin-like performances before, but he's usually loose.
"First time he stepped on the court, he didn't say nothing," Nate Robinson said. "He usually says 'Hi,' but today he was focused, in the zone. So we knew something was up."
>>Kobe Bryant scores 61 versus Knicks
Bryant scored 18 points in the first quarter and had 34 by halftime. His 40th point came on a free throw with 5:32 left in the third. The 50th also came on a foul shot with 6:06 left in the game, which drew a roar from the Garden crowd. The 60th also came from the line with 2:33 left.
He was 20-for-20 from the line and shot 19-for-31 from the floor in the game, with three assists and one blocked shot for the Lakers (38-9).
It was such an incredible performance that it made Pau Gasol's 31 points and 14 rebounds almost an afterthought. It was one of the most incredible 92-point combinations ever seen at the Garden.
The Knicks (21-26) lost for the first time at home in six games. Al Harrington led the way with 24 points and David Lee had 22 points and 12 rebounds for his 36th double-double this season and 11th straight.
Mike D'Antoni's team hung in there for most of the first half, but the game started to slip away late in the third quarter and the Knicks fell behind by as many as 20 points in the fourth.
"We're not there yet," D'Antoni said of his team, which has two more battles against elite teams this week. The Celtics are in town Friday to complete the week.
Everyone had to start somewhere. Bryant's first-ever game at the Garden was Nov. 8, 1996. The then-18-year-old prodigy scored just one point.
"I sucked," he said. "I remember coming in and being nervous as heck. Wearing 80 pounds soaking wet and having to guard John Wallace . . . My career has progressed from there for sure."
Bryant's career high is 81 points, which he scored against the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 22, 2006. His previous high against the Knicks was 46 points almost six years ago to the day, on Feb. 6, 2003.