Redemption came one year later as the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Orlando Magic, 99-86 at Amway Arena to claim their 15th overall NBA Championship. After their bitter defeat to the Boston Celtics last year, the Lakers set out on a mission in training camp to reclaim the title and propel Los Angeles back to the top of the NBA. They did so in convincing fashion, beating a scrappy Orlando team on its home court, to take the best of seven Finals matchup, 4 games to 1. Kobe Bryant earned himself MVP honors by averaging 32.4 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists per game. Tonight, he had a typical, stellar Kobe performance, amassing 30 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, and 4 blocked shots.
Kobe, known for his ability to knock down difficult shots, tagged the Magic from start to finish, and along the way, got huge contributions from his teammates as well. Pau Gasol, (14 points, 15 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 blocked shot), Trevor Ariza, (15 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals), Derek Fisher, (13 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists), and Lamar Odom, (17 points, 10 rebounds, 1 steal), provided ample support in closing out the series in five games. Andrew Bynum, (6 points, 5 rebounds, 1 steal), again was limited in playing time due to foul trouble, but his aggressive play showed glimpses of his old self prior to his knee injury that had the Laker bench players bounding out of their seats.
Orlando, with their backs against the wall, came out firing and quickly took a 15-6 lead following a Rafer Alston layup. Hedo Turkoglu, (12 points, 3 assists, 2 rebounds, 1 steal), and Rashard Lewis, (18 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal), connected from the perimeter to help Orlando to its fast start. Kobe Bryant appeared to reinjure his ring finger on his shooting hand and as the cameras tried to zoom in on him, he was in obvious pain and discomfort. Los Angeles called time out to regroup and refocus and the City of Los Angeles held its collective breath as we waited for word on Kobe’s condition. But he trotted back out when play resumed and appeared to be alright. The Magic pushed the lead to 19-10 with just over five minutes to play in the 1st quarter, but Kobe responded with a 20-footer. The Lakers came to life from that point on, as Kobe hit again, this time from behind the arc to trim the lead to 19-15 in less than a minute. Alston, (12 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals), got loose for two 7-foot floaters in the lane to give Orlando a 23-17 edge, but a 9-5 run by the Lakers to close out the period had them trailing by only a basket, 28-26.
Orlando regained the momentum to start the 2nd quarter when Dwight Howard, (11 points, 10 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 3 blocked shots), made three consecutive baskets to open the stanza. Kobe answered with a driving dunk followed by a LO trey from 25-feet to pull the Lakers to within 38-36. After backup center, Marcin Gortat scored on a dunk off a Jameer Nelson feed, the Magic offense went ice cold. The Lakers proceeded to go on a 16-0 run to blow the game wide open. Gasol started the run with a block on a driving Hedo Turkoglu. D-Fish splashed a 25-foot three pointer followed by an Ariza 26-foot triple. A Kobe perimeter shot, then another trey by Ariza, followed by a D-Fish layup, and the Lakers were now up, 49-40. But the run wasn’t finished, as Ariza made 1 of 2 free throws and Lamar connected on a jumper to make it 52-40 with 3:06 left in the first half. The Lakers closed the first half with a comfortable 56-46 lead and Orlando heading to their locker room clearly shaken with their heads cast down.
Orlando tried to make a game of it, and after a Alston trey, the Magic managed to cut the lead to 58-53. But Lamar Odom knocks down a pair of identical corner three pointers, and the lead balloons back up to 64-53. Orlando calls time out, and coach Stan Van Gundy implores his team to keep fighting, but the Lakers smell blood and go in for the kill. Kobe hits a runner, Fisher connects from 18-feet, Pau hits a soft hook rolling to the left and Kobe adds a pair of free throws to make it, 73-57 with 2:55 left in the period. Orlando continues its offensive woes and clangs one shot after another. The Lakers defense exploits their prey and when Jordan Farmar nails a 14-foot jumper, the lead appears insurmountable, at 76-61 at the end of three.
Orlando’s last run comes at the opening of the 4th quarter as J.J. Redick and Nelson connect on consecutive three pointers. But the Lakers counter with a Kobe trey and another bucket by Ariza. Luke Walton gets into the scoring column on a driving layup to make it 87-70 with 5:30 left to play. The Magic fans begin to leave the arena as the Laker fans in attendance begin to get louder and louder. Lewis and Redick combine for 11 points in a span of just over two minutes to trim the lead back down to 95-84 at the 2-minute mark. But it’s not enough as the Magic are forced to foul and the Lakers connect on their free throw attempts down the stretch. Fisher’s free throws with 0:36 seconds left to play seals the final margin of victory and as the clock ticks down to zero, smiles and jubilation erupt from the Laker bench. Kobe leaps into the air, pumping his fist and is mobbed by his teammates. Championship caps and t-shirts are distributed among the players as coaching staff and players alike celebrate title number 15 on the Magic’s court.
dEDGE Post Scriptum
MVP! MVP! MVP! chants ring through Amway Arena as David Stern and Hall-of-Famer, Bill Russell, award the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player trophy to Kobe Bryant. Kobe lofts the trophy over his head in one hand as he carefully keeps tab over his youngest daughter and feels for her with his other hand. He shares the trophy with his family allowing them to rub and touch the gleaming globe. And he thanks his supporters, his teammates and coaching staff and makes the most important assist of the night. He credits all around him for his success. Selfish, uncoachable, ball-hog, temperamental. All knocks on Kobe Bryant the All-Star, the teammate, and the man. And he has proven all his naysayers wrong, proof in the form of one, Larry O’Brien championship trophy and soon to be unveiled, Lakers championship banner to be displayed proudly next to the previous 14 titles.
Kobe accomplished what most said he was incapable of doing. He distributed the ball to his open teammates. He directed a young squad as their leader, down a difficult and oftentimes grueling path to the ultimate reward. He prodded, pulled, encouraged and yelled, all in a positive manner to ensure the opportunity to compete for an NBA title. And when they arrived at the largest stage, he didn’t let them slip from the heavy expectations, but instead, allowed them to shine in their own personal glory. Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, Trevor Ariza, and even Andrew Bynum just became World Champions for the first time. For Kobe and Derek Fisher, this is title number 4, and perhaps their greatest to date. They did it as they learned from prior experiences. This time, they were the seasoned veterans that the team leaned upon. This time, they were the inspirational voices that brought them closer together during periods of uncertainty and difficulty. And this time, they did it alone and won.
The smiles on the faces of former Laker greats are beaming and full of pride today. Robert Horry, Rick Fox, AC Green, Ron Harper, Michael Cooper, all were talented players in their own right. But they sacrificed their play for the betterment of the team. And they were rewarded with multiple championship rings and will be forever remembered for their contributions to the purple and gold banners that hang within Staples Center. So too will the names of this squad be remembered for its accomplishments and clutch plays in this incredible run. And for those who played alongside a young, brash, talented and solitary figure in Kobe Bryant, they too are smiling and nodding their heads in approval of his transformation into a savvy and grizzled veteran. Kobe’s career statistics speak for themselves. Now too, will his legacy. He has escaped the shadows of Shaquille O’Neal, and has emerged the clear winner and heart and soul for this Lakers organization. He now has the crown to compliment his personal records, and the adulation of an entire NBA fanbase. Today is just the dawn of a new Kobe Bryant era. The window of opportunity is wide open and the breeze feels good in Lakerland.