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Two great Garden parties but not the best

February 08, 2009|Mike Wise | Wise is a columnist for the Washington Post.

There is plenty of chatter and debate about sublime basketball at the world's most famous arena this week, about how Kobe Bryant and LeBron James transformed Madison Square Garden into their personal playgrounds within 48 hours of each other, and about who made a better case for MVP on what is still one of the game's largest stages.

Before we get to whose was the grandest regular season performance of all time in the building -- Bryant's scintillating 61 points Monday night, breaking Bernard King's Garden record of 60 set in 1984, or James' surreal triple-double on Wednesday (52 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists in a closer-than-expected victory) -- let's first do away with the notion of "all time."

That moniker will forever be reserved for Michael Jordan in March 1995, the night he scorched the best defensive team of its era for 55 points -- a Knicks team coached by Pat Riley, not Mike D'Antoni.

I know. I was there.

But now that that's out of the way, a serious inspection of all the jump shots, dunks and general misery Bryant and James unleashed on the Knicks, whose defense today is comparable to the Professor's and Headache's of AND1 fame, shows a clear champion in Gotham during the last three days:

Bryant.

Look, the man played just 36 minutes 45 seconds, meaning he essentially didn't play a full quarter of the Lakers' win over New York. If he had, there is no reason to believe he would not have scored 75 points.

It wasn't as if he were a one-man team, either. Pau Gasol got 31 points in the game.

Yes, Cleveland's James was flat-out amazing, displaying a flair and fire that was mesmerizing in his 44 minutes. But he needed two more shots to get his points than Bryant (James was 17 of 33 from the field) and he missed three free throws (Bryant went 20 for 20 from the line). James' closest sidekick that night, second-leading scorer Zydrunas Ilgauskas, finished with just 15 points.

John Starks took the brunt of Jordan's superb show that special night, March 28, 1995. The reason I consider it greater than any individual regular season performance before or since at the Garden is because it came less than a month after Jordan returned to the NBA after his first retirement.

This was before three more titles in Chicago, before the shot that sunk the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. At the time, no one believed Michael was still, well, Michael. In fact, the enduring image of Jordan in the playoffs that year was getting the ball stripped by Orlando's Nick Anderson in a second-round series the Bulls would lose in six games.

The player who tormented Pat Riley, the Knicks and their howling fans throughout the early 1990s seemed less explosive and theatrical. But that night announced his genuine return to the game, and he was even better, using Starks and Greg Anthony as pylons, maneuvering through the middle, pulling up off one foot for pillowy jumpers one moment then powering over a front line of Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason the next.

Best of all, he faked all of humanity out of its sneakers at the end. Rising for a jumper near the top of the key, drawing everyone toward him, he somehow found a cutting Bill Wennington for a dunk with 3.1 seconds left and an eventual 113-111 victory. The most prolific shooter of his generation actually won the game with a pass in the final seconds, something neither Bryant nor James did this past week.

I still remember Starks rolling his eyes afterward, lamenting, "I got a hand up on every shot."

"It's so unbelievably hard to judge, but Jordan might have been the best of all of them, because he did it against an outstanding defensive team," said Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld, who was on the court the night King scored 60 and winced from the stands as the Knicks general manager when Jordan scored 55. Grunfeld still likes to tell people that he and Bernard King combined for 63 that night.

James actually had as many as Jordan after one quarter the other night, 20 points, while Bryant scored 18. The poor soul mostly abused on the playground 14 years later was Quentin Richardson, who essentially gave up 38 points in the first 24 minutes he guarded each player.

David Lee gave James more room to shoot than the Wizards have the past three Mays, and he kept knocking them down. He also missed a lot of jump shots, which is why the game was much closer than the Lakers' win over the Knicks two nights earlier.

Still -- and this is going to shock some -- James would get my vote for most valuable player at this point in the season.

No one has been more clutch and indispensable than James to his team. No one this good has less of a supporting cast to backpack on a nightly basis in the NBA. In fact, if James was doing in 1995 for the Cavaliers what he is doing now, I would give him the MVP over Michael Jordan. Bryant would finish second in this year's balloting.

Hey, the way these kids are playing, Jordan might one day be referred to as LeBron-like, or, even better, Kobe-esque.

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