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.
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
"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
He announced himself with 17 points in the opening quarter. But even more impressive were Kobe's sensational passes to
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
"In two or three years, you won't know what to do with him," Magic general manager
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.