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Lakers, Magic battle not only for title, but for freedom from Shaq

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Forgive me, Kobe, but these NBA Finals are all about Shaq. Can Los Angeles ever win a championship without Shaq? That's what the Lakers are trying to prove. Will Orlando ever overcome the departure of Shaq? That's what the Magic are trying to prove.

Shaquille O'Neal presides over this series like an eccentric god of ancient Greece, never seen and always felt. The insecurities, the ambitions that drive these finalists -- all of these gifts that keep on giving were going-away presents from Shaq. For five absent years in Los Angeles, as well as for the 13 seasons since his departure from Orlando, both franchises have been trying to make themselves forget about Shaq.

Kobe Bryant's Lakers were on the verge of escaping the diabolical shadow of Shaq before losing 108-104 in Game 3 on Tuesday. They survived a 75 percent field-goal performance by Orlando in the first half to pull even at 99-99 with 2:41 left. The Magic could not have shot better, and yet, there on the other side of the ball crouched Kobe, ready to demonstrate once and for all time that he can win without Shaq.

But this is the curse of wanting something so very badly: The closer you come, the further away it appears. In the final minute, Kobe missed a free throw and then had his drive pilfered on the dribble by Dwight Howard, who, of course, is the younger version of Shaq. Now the Lakers' lead in the Finals has been trimmed to 2-1, and Kobe's redemption has been extended by at least one extra game.

"I'm used to coming through in those situations," said Bryant, who finished with 31 points and eight assists. "The team trusts me to come through in those situations, and it just didn't happen tonight."

On this night, Kobe (5-of-10) happened to shoot free throws like Shaq. And Howard happened to shoot free throws (11-of-16) more or less like Kobe. Oh, the cruelty, it was everywhere.

Ever since he ended his high school career at Lower Merion (Pa.) High School by taking Brandy to the prom, Kobe has been defined by Shaq. He couldn't live with him, he couldn't live without him. The divorce of Shaq and Kobe became a moral tale for our time as they turned into the Lennon and McCartney of their sport: a couple who couldn't put aside their differences for the greater good. But now Kobe stands two wins away from defining himself on his own terms. Thirteen years he's been at this, tormented as Odysseus was by Poseidon, as Dreyfus was by Clouseau. When Odysseus made it to his finish line, he killed almost everybody, which is what Kobe tried to do in Game 3.

He announced himself with 17 points in the opening quarter. But even more impressive were Kobe's sensational passes to Pau Gasol. One time, Kobe appeared to be taking a three-pointer, when, in fact, he was alley-ooping to Gasol.

The dynamics of the new Lakers post-Shaq can be summed up by the relationship between Kobe and Gasol, who is not Shaq and has no desire ever to be Shaq. His moves around the basket are nuanced and silky, and he tends to dunk harmlessly without pretense of shattering the backboard.

When Kobe speaks Spanish to Gasol, as he does from game to game, I think he may be saying something like, "I served with Shaq, I knew Shaq, Shaq was a friend of mine. You are no Shaq." Which, from Kobe's point of view, has to be a dream come true.

For how many players earn the opportunity to win championships by playing to different styles in different eras? This is the historic chasm that Kobe has spent years learning to vault, and would he ever be so close to vaulting it without Shaq? The outcome of their doomed marriage threatened to typecast Kobe as a selfish scorer incapable of leadership, and the years he has spent trying to disprove those old descriptions have helped him to become the best player in the world. For that, he owes nothing to his former teammate, apart from this: The question of Kobe's destiny minus his former teammate was posed essentially by Shaq. The answer is being provided by Kobe, though not quite so firmly as he would have liked in Game 3.

The Magic have been dealing with similar issues since Shaq left to become Kobe's teammate and tormentor 13 years ago. Tuesday marked the first Finals game in Orlando since 1995, when the 23-year-old future of the franchise was Shaq. The Magic have been trying to get over him ever since. They tried to fill in for him with Tim Duncan, who wouldn't come as a free agent, and then they tried to replace him with Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady, and that didn't work out, either. Now they're trying to replace him with Howard, a fellow No. 1 overall pick in the draft, but Howard isn't quite ready. The Lakers have limited Howard to 22 field-goal attempts in three games, which is something no finalist ever has done to Shaq; for him, 22 shots was one night's work.

"In two or three years, you won't know what to do with him," Magic general manager Otis Smith said of Howard. But right now, the Magic are defined just as much by the extravagance of their three-point shooting as they are by Howard's play inside.

The Lakers will continue to bottle up Howard while daring the Magic to continue to shoot a Finals-record 62.5 percent overall, which was just barely enough to win Game 3. So staggers forth this series of two franchises in search of a new defining sentence, a sentence that, for one and only one of these teams, will not continue to end with ... Shaq.

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