By Tom Withers, Published June 15 2009
NBA championship: Lakers claim title, Focused Bryant leads L.A. over Orlando
Bryant’s seven-year chase of a coveted championship is over. He’s got his fourth, and Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson his record 10th, a ring for each finger. One year after failing in the finals, Bryant and the Lakers have redemption, and all the rewards that go with it.
They earned their 15th title on Sunday night as Bryant scored 30 points and Pau Gasol added 14 and 15 rebounds in a 99-86 win in Game 5 over the Orlando Magic, who ran out of comebacks.
It took longer than Bryant expected, but he has stepped out of former teammate Shaquille O’Neal’s enormous shadow – at last.
His fourth championship secured a strong case can be made for Bryant being the league’s best player since Michael Jordan hung up his sneakers.
O’Neal, now with the Phoenix Suns, was glad to see the Bryant win another title.
“Congratulations kobe, u deserve it,” O’Neal said on Twitter page. “You played great. Enjoy it my man enjoy it.”
Bryant’s coach stands alone.
Jackson, the chilled-out, bow-legged Zen Master who won six league titles in the 1990s with Jordan in Chicago, now has won No. 4 with Los Angeles and broke a tie with legendary Boston coach Red Auerbach as the winningest coach in finals history.
“I’ll smoke the cigar tonight in memory of Red,” Jackson said. “He was a great guy.”
Bryant and Jackson, whose relationship strained and briefly snapped under the weight of success, are again at the top of their games.
Nothing was going to stop Bryant, who spent the postseason scowling, snarling, baring his teeth and all but breathing fire at anything in his path. For weeks, the All-Star has worn his game face, and only when the victory was his in the final seconds did the finals MVP allow himself to smile.
After the final horn, he leaped into the air and was quickly engulfed by his teammates, who bounced around the floor of Amway Arena. Bryant then gave a long, heartfelt hug and shared a few words with Jackson before sweeping up his daughters, both wearing gold Lakers dresses, into his arms.
Bryant had come up short twice in the finals before, in 2004 with O’Neal against Detroit, and again last season against the Celtics in the renewal of the league’s best rivalry. The Lakers were beaten in six games, losing the finale in Boston by 39 points, a humiliating beatdown that Bryant and his teammates had trouble shaking.
They went to training camp with one goal in mind. This was going to be their season, and except for a few minor missteps, it was.
“It’s so tough to win championships,” Bryant said. “We started over from scratch. Here we are again. This really feels like a dream.”
After beating Utah in the first round, Los Angeles was forced to go seven games against Houston, which lost center Yao Ming to an injury. The Lakers then took care of Denver in six games, setting up a matchup with the shoot-from-their-hips Magic, who made their first visit to the finals since O’Neal took them there in 1995.
Orlando will be haunted by moments in a series that swung on a few plays and had two overtime games.
After losing Game 1 by 25 points, the Magic had their chance in Game 2 but rookie Courtney Lee missed an alley-oop layup in the final second of regulation. In Game 4, Dwight Howard clanged two free throws with 11.1 seconds, and the Magic allowed Derek Fisher to nail a game-tying 3-pointer to force OT.
Howard, the Magic’s super hero center, was hardly a factor in Game 5. He scored 11 points, took just nine shots and never got a chance to get going. Rashard Lewis scored 18 points, but was only 3 of 12 on 3s for Orlando, which after living on the 3, finally died by it.
The Magic went just 8 of 27 from long range.
Orlando was trying to become the first team to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the finals. They had rallied to knock off Philadelphia and Boston, and then upset LeBron James and Cleveland in the conference finals. The Magic always felt they had a shot at history.
Bryant, though, wouldn’t be denied his place.
Orlando’s magical mystery tour came to a quick end.
As teammates, Bryant and O’Neal were nearly unbeatable on the court. Off it, there were problems.
The pair won three straight titles together from 2000-02, but the Bryant-O’Neal dynasty became dysfunctional as both fought for control with Jackson publicly siding with his All-Star center. It all eventually crumbled in 2004 when O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat.
Bryant was blamed for the breakup, and as the years passed, his many critics said he couldn’t win one by himself. He couldn’t, but the addition of Gasol, who came over in a stunning trade from Memphis last season, filled O’Neal’s massive void at center and gave Bryant help.
Fisher, who has four rings himself, came back to L.A. after stints in Golden State and Utah and became a steadying force. If not for his two key 3-pointers in Game 4, this series would still be going.
The Lakers were anything but The Kobe Show.
They got help from their entire roster as Odom, Trevor Ariza and Andrew Bynum, who missed most of last season and the playoffs with a knee injury, came through.
The Lakers began to separate from the Magic in the second quarter, and they did it by borrowing a page from Orlando’s playbook – shooting at will.
Trailing 40-36, Los Angeles went on a 16-0 run, which included two 3-pointers by Ariza and one by Fisher. When Fisher got Howard to leave his feet and dropped a layup, the Lakers were up by nine and a sizable contingent of purple-and-gold clad fans began chants of “Let’s Go Lakers!”
They led 56-46 at halftime and kept their distance in the second half, forcing the Magic, who shot a finals record 63 percent in Game 3, into rapid-fire mode.
This time, the shots wouldn’t drop.
The Lakers’ shots weren’t falling either early on, and if their field-goal percentage wasn’t ugly enough, Bryant jammed the outside fingers on his shooting hand when he had the ball ripped away.
During a timeout, Bryant, who has been bothered by a dislocated pinky for two seasons, kicked his feet in obvious pain as he sat on the bench. At halftime, one of the team’s trainers yanked on his hand and Bryant turned down an offer of ice.
“I want to feel the pain,” he said.
On this night, he wanted to savor it all.
NOTES: Ariza and Hedo Turkoglu went forehead-to-forehead – literally – in the second quarter before they were separated by Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy and Magic assistant Patrick Ewing. Both players were called for technicals. ... Celebrity row was sparse with only tennis star Serena Williams and rapper ‘Lil Wayne notable. ... Jackson’s contract is up and he’s hinted at retirement. Bryant doesn’t believe it. “I think he’s just more amused by everybody thinking that he’s thinking that, if that makes any sense,” he said.
L.A. Lakers 26 30 20 23 – 99
Orlando 28 18 15 25 – 86
L.A. LAKERS (99): Ariza 5-12 3-6 15, Gasol 6-9 2-4 14, Bynum 3-11 0-1 6, Fisher 4-7 4-4 13, Bryant 10-23 8-8 30, Odom 5-12 4-5 17, Walton 1-2 0-0 2, Farmar 1-3 0-0 2, Vujacic 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 35-80 21-28 99.
ORLANDO (86): Turkoglu 4-8 3-4 12, Lewis 6-19 3-5 18, Howard 5-9 1-3 11, Alston 5-15 1-2 12, Lee 5-11 2-2 12, Pietrus 2-5 0-0 4, Nelson 2-7 0-0 5, Battie 0-1 0-0 0, Gortat 2-4 0-0 4, Redick 3-3 0-0 8. Totals 34-82 10-16 86.
3-Point Goals – L.A. Lakers 8-16 (Odom 3-3, Ariza 2-5, Bryant 2-5, Fisher 1-1, Farmar 0-1, Walton 0-1), Orlando 8-27 (Lewis 3-12, Redick 2-2, Turkoglu 1-1, Nelson 1-3, Alston 1-6, Pietrus 0-1, Lee 0-2). Fouled Out – None. Rebounds – L.A. Lakers 56 (Gasol 15), Orlando 50 (Howard, Lewis 10). Assists – L.A. Lakers 13 (Bryant 5), Orlando 20 (Nelson, Lewis 4). Total Fouls – L.A. Lakers 20, Orlando 23. Technicals – Ariza, Turkoglu. A – 17,461 (17,461).