Was this the night where the Kobe and Shaq era really took flight? If you watched game 1 of the 1998-99 NBA season between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Houston Rockets, you might think so. Coming into this game, the Lakers were without Robert Horry, his wife was giving birth, and Rick Fox, who was dealing with bone spurs in his foot, so Kobe Bryant got the start at the small-forward spot next to Eddie Jones with Corie Blount next to Shaquille O’Neal at the power-forward spot. The star power in this game was kind of insane with Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Kobe, Shaq and the rookie sensation Michael Dickerson! Look, if you were watching this game live at the time, listened to the way Hubie Brown and Not Kevin Harlan talk about the first-round pick out of Arizona you would have thought the Rockets had a Big 4 plus Matt Maloney. If you were wondering how Dickerson’s career played out, hop on over to his Basketball-Reference page. (Spoiler alert: He did not become Scottie Pippen 2.0.) Still, this game was highlighted by the surprise Kobe start and how Shaq dropped 31 and it felt like he could have easily dropped 50 if necessary.
One of my favorite moments watching this game was a nugget from Hubie on something Kobe did during the game: “Kobe was yelling for the extra pass Harper just gave him a look.” The sequence that Hubie is referring to is a play where, yes, Kobe was open, but Harper was open in his sweet spot again -- top of the key, behind the three-point line -- and had the audacity to not swing it to the kid making his first start. Kobe was Kobe from the start. It should be noted that Harper was on fire here, posting an offensive rating of 194 per 100 possessions. In a game where three-pointers were few and far between, Derek F’ing Harper was locked in from deep. Still, Kobe wasn’t wrong to be annoyed not to be getting the ball as much as possible in this game as he and Shaq were doing everything to keep Barkley and the Rockets from offensive-rebounding them into submission. Kobe’s usage rating was 27.9 with Shaq’s at 33.4 and the next closest was backup center Elden Campbell at 20.1. Eddie Jones, prior to rolling his ankle in brutal fashion, was a non-factor and it seemed like even he recognized in Game 1 that it was Kobe Time in Los Angeles. It started early, too, as Kobe drained fadeaway long two from the left side and would you like to guess who the announcers immediately compared it to? Prime Eddie Jones? No, they compared him to Michael Jordan. Hubie even knew right away. Kobe posted a double-double, but, you’re not going to believe this, but it was a points-and-rebounds version along with several very mean blocks on Pippen. There were several possessions where Kobe dribbled the ball up, looked around a little bit, realized he was a better scorer than everyone around him not named Shaquille O’Neal and threw up a long two. At one point in this game the Lakers’ starting backcourt was 0-for-10 from the floor -- Derek Fisher and Eddie Jones -- and I think I’ve decided it’s their fault for not destroying Maloney and Dickerson in this game that pushed Kobe to take the same amount of shots as Prime Shaq in a game where the latter posted a quiet 31/14/6 line.
The Kobe and Shaq combination worked. We know what happened after this season, after the coach from Space Jam moved on, after Corie Blount wasn’t starting any more games for the Lakers, after the geometrically-friendly offense was instituted, after Derek Fisher stopped wearing high socks, the Lakers won back-to-back-to-back championships and it was because of Kobe and Shaq. But if you watched this game, and Hakeem doesn’t go scoreless for almost an entire half of basketball, and Pippen doesn’t go 1-for-1000 from the field, and the Rockets win, the story, in a negative sense, is that Kobe took the same amount of shots as the guy went 13-for-21 from the field, drew consistent double-teams, and was doing whatever he wanted inside all night long. Kobe, for his part, went 8-21, which seems like a ration for the rest of his career, but you had to watch all 48 minutes to see why it wasn’t so bad. There was some Your Turn My Turn action, sure, but Kobe had it going for stretches, he needed to get a lot of shots off because he was only getting major minutes because of Fox’s injury, and because he was filling up the stat sheet in other ways like swiping the ball away from Pippen and Friends on multiple occasions, along with getting a block and finding the right time to cut on the weak side when all the attention was on Shaq or, checks notes, Sean Rooks, inside.
This was also not Eddie Jones best game of his career. He couldn’t hit a shot from deep and eight minutes would go by without hearing the announcers call his name. He was on the floor, he played 42 minutes, but you might have missed it if you weren’t paying close attention. I was seven-years-old when this game took place, and I was too young to really have a good feel for who Eddie Jones was as a basketball player, but from this game alone, he was Joe Johnson before Joe Johnson. You could tell he could shoot, you could tell he was at least a b-plus player offensively, but he just didn’t seem to have the fire to be like a Kobe or any other all-time great 2-guard. He blended in far too often, but if he’s your No. 3 or No. 4 guy, that’s OK. The same has been true for Johnson throughout his career. He was overmatched as the No. 1 option in Atlanta, but when the pressure wasn’t on him to be The Guy in Phoenix he thrived. I imagine Laker fans during this time were as annoyed with Jones as Hawks fans were with Johnson or Celtics fans were with Jeff Green. There are so many of these kinds of players, it’s kind of crazy.
Did you know Scottie Pippen was no fan of Matt Maloney or Bryce Drew -- yes, that Bryce Drew -- bringing the ball up for Rudy T’s team? If you watched this game you knew. It was fun to watch Pippen working as a point forward, although, in Year 11, and his first game with Houston, he looked less like Bulls Pippen and a lot more like Orlando Magic Hedo Turkoglu. He was still posting up a ton, but his vision was incredible in this game, and he had a feel for how to beat the Lakers and it wasn’t with their backcourt. It was with finding the rookie on some cuts, it was with Hakeem early-and-often, and it was with Barkley late when it was clear the man was on a mission to steal one in Los Angeles. It didn’t work, the Rockets lost by 8, but Pippen still contributed even though he couldn’t shoot for shit all night. He got blocked by Kobe in this game, had him his pick his pocket on multiple occasions, and didn’t let any of that stop him from slinging some dimes to Othella Harrington when necessary.
But the Rockets should have won this game. The Lakers, without Horry, couldn’t handle the combination of Barkley and Hakeem inside, just look at the offensive-rebounding disparity, but they went away from Hakeem for way too much time and tried way too hard to get Dickerson involved in everything they were doing. Still, it was interesting to watch Year 14 Barkley body guys inside similar to the way Julius Randle does it in today’s NBA. He could have had 30 and 10 and it still wouldn’t have been enough because Pippen was insanely off and Hakeem stopped getting the ball after the first quarter where he swished a mid-range jumper from just about every spot around the key. The other team had Kobe and Shaq. You'll get used to it.