Three Observations 1. This was the season, the series and the game that will define Kobe Bryant.
Taking nothing away from the three championships Bryant won earlier this decade -- titles he has received less and less credit for as the years have passed -- but the 2008-09 season was about No. 24. Sure, LeBron James claimed the nominal title of the league's best individual player, but Bryant pushed the Lakers to a wire-to-wire run atop the Western Conference in the regular season, propelled them through a challenging conference playoffs and engineered a five-game win in the NBA Finals. In the deciding Game 5 -- which the Lakers easily could have mailed in knowing Game 6 was back in Los Angeles -- Bryant scored 30 points (on 10-of-23 shooting) and added six rebounds and five assists. Each and every time the Magic made a surge, there was Bryant with an answer, showcasing the leadership skills that Phil Jackson saw seeds of nearly a decade ago.
"There was a point in Kobe's [early career] when we sat together and watched tape," Jackson said. "I wanted him to understand his impact on the game a little bit and my feeling about his impact on the game. We had a game in Toronto, and he had gotten hooked up with Vince Carter in the middle of the fourth quarter and they kind of exchanged baskets, and I thought it took our team out of their team play, and the game was much harder than it should have been. So I talked to him a little bit about leadership and his ability to be a leader, and he said, 'I'm ready to be a captain right now.' And I said, 'But no one is ready to follow you.' He was 22 at the time. He was a young guy.
"In those years that have ensued, he's learned how to become a leader in a way in which people want to follow him. And I think that's really important for him to have learned that, because he knew that he had to give to get back in return. He's become a giver rather than just a guy that's a demanding leader, and that's been great for him and great to watch."
With Sunday's victory, all the criticisms Bryant faced for his role in breaking up the Shaq and Kobe Lakers, all the beatings he took for his occasional trade demands and off-the-cuff rants at teammates (see Bynum, Andrew), and all the stresses that came with rebuilding a champion from scratch were wiped away.
"It felt like a big old monkey was off my back," Bryant said. "It felt so good to be able to have this moment."
Just as Posey's defense and clutch perimeter shooting buoyed Boston in the '08 Finals, Ariza's did the same for the Lakers in '09. On Sunday, Ariza carried the Lakers through a quarter for the second game in a row. In Game 4, it was his 13-point third quarter that helped the Lakers rally from a double-digit halftime deficit. He did it one quarter earlier in Game 5, scoring 12 points and coming up with two huge steals that helped the Lakers build a 10-point lead at intermission. The Lakers will have to make a decision on Ariza this offseason; he is a free agent and his performance this season guarantees there will be offers, just as there were for Posey last summer. (Posey left the Celtics to sign a four-year, $25 deal million with the Hornets.) The Lakers would be wise to re-sign Ariza, 23, even if they have to overpay a little to keep him.
3. Bryant was the Finals MVP ... but let's not forget Pau Gasol's performance.
Gasol's offensive skills are well known, and all of them -- the 15-foot jump shot, the hook with either hand and the turnaround -- were on display in this series. But it was Gasol's defense -- something for which he has never been known for -- that was most impressive. Giving up bulk, speed and strength to Dwight Howard, Gasol utilized slick footwork and superb timing to keep the Orlando center in check for most of the series.
"I think the thing that helped us get to this level was the improvements that he made defensively," Bryant said. "He did a terrific job defensively for us all year, and particularly in this series. Offensively, his capabilities are limitless. He's a dominant post-up player, extremely versatile, makes great decisions and, obviously, when we got him last year, that really took us to that next step."
Play Of The Night The Magic cut the Lakers' lead to 13 early in the fourth quarter and were beginning to build some momentum. That was until Bryant knocked down a 26-foot dagger with Hedo Turkoglu riding his shooting hand. As Bryant headed the other direction, he pumped both fists and dropped into a crouch near the Lakers' bench, a rare show of emotion from him in this series.
"That was the shot that I was measuring the whole time," Bryant said. "I knew I had to knock it down because they were starting to surge. I could feel it. That shot, I knew if I was able to knock it down, it would deflate them a little bit and buy us another minute."
Courtside Confidential Count Stan Van Gundy among those who believes that Jackson, who surpassed the late Red Auerbach with his 10th championship, is now the greatest coach in NBA history. "Some of the stuff is almost incomprehensible," the Magic coach said. "I think if I'm right, the guy has won 51 playoff series now. Check your record book and see how many coaches have even won 50 playoff games. It's fewer than 20, and the guy has won 51 playoff series. It's incomprehensible." ... Amway Arena was filled with Lakers fans, who appeared to make up perhaps 25 percent of the crowd of 17,461.
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