Equal parts respected and reviled, Bryant finally emerged from ShaquilleO'Neal's massive shadow Sunday. Bryant, the winner of three titles this decade as the sidekick to O'Neal, cemented his place in basketball history Sunday as the unquestioned on-court leader of a championship team and a Finals MVP. His Lakers stomped the Magic 99-86 to win the series 4-1 and claim the 15th title in franchise history.
"It felt like a big old monkey was off my back," Bryant said. "It felt so good to be able to have this moment. We tried not to envision it too much because you just get too excited. You try not to think about it, just think about playing the game, and for this moment to be here and to reflect back on the season and everything that you've been through, it's the top of the list, man."
After winning his 10th title, Lakers coach Phil Jackson finds himself atop another list. Jackson, who previously won six titles with Michael Jordan and the Bulls and three with the O'Neal-Bryant Lakers, broke a tie with Celtics legend Red Auerbach and set a new NBA record for championships by a coach.
"I'll smoke a cigar tonight in memory of Red," Jackson said after the Lakers received their championship trophy.
The Lakers, whether they were led by George Mikan, Magic Johnson, O'Neal or Bryant, have spent plenty of time atop the NBA. As the Minneapolis Lakers, they won the title in the NBA's first season in 1950. The 2008-09 title is the first since Bryant, Jackson and O'Neal teamed to lead Los Angeles to three consecutive titles from 2000-02. Jackson retired after the Lakers lost the 2004 Finals to Detroit, and the Lakers traded O'Neal to the Heat after electing to build around Bryant.
Jackson returned a year later, and the Lakers made the Finals in 2008, where they fell to Boston in six games. This year, the Lakers nearly mirrored last year's Celtics, winning the first two at home, dropping Game 3 on the road and storming back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit to win Game 4. The only difference? The Lakers didn't need a sixth game.
The Magic led for most of Sunday's first quarter, and they had a 40-36 lead in the second before Lakers guard Derek Fisher hit a three-pointer to launch a 16-0 run. Forward Trevor Ariza, whom the Magic traded to the Lakers in November 2007, scored seven of his 15 points during the run. The Lakers went into halftime up 10. They stretched the lead to 15 to end the third and seemingly put the game out of reach when Bryant hit the jumper over Turkoglu with 8:13 remaining to give the Lakers an 83-67 lead.
Bryant scored a game-high 30 points and finished with a 32.4-point average for the Finals. Pau Gasol, the 7-foot Spaniard whose arrival from Memphis late last season seemed to be the final piece in the Lakers' championship puzzle, scored 14 points and grabbed 15 rebounds. Rashard Lewis led the Magic with 18 points, while Dwight Howard scored 11 and grabbed 10 rebounds.
The Magic will be left wondering what might have happened had Howard made either of two free throws with 11.1 seconds remaining in Game 4 or if Van Gundy had ordered them to foul immediately after those missed free throws. Instead, Fisher drilled a three-pointer to force overtime. Later, Fisher hit another three to seal the win, and Van Gundy lamented his decision to avoid a free-throw-shooting contest. "That'll haunt me forever," Van Gundy said after Game 4.
If the Magic make prudent moves this offseason, they have the nucleus to return to the Finals next year. Howard will be just 24, and the Magic should have plenty of talent around him. "Certainly Orlando is very capable of coming back to the Finals," Jackson said Sunday. Jackson's team may have provided the motivation the Magic will need to return. Shortly after the game, Howard chatted with point guard Jameer Nelson about just that. "Just see how they're celebrating," Howard said. "It should motivate us. It's like what I told Jameer, 'We were right there at our goal.' Our goal was in reach."
But the Lakers wanted it more. As Fisher dribbled out the clock, Bryant turned and pumped both fists. Seconds later, the Lakers piled into a group hug. Bryant stood in the middle of it all.
"I just don't have to hear that criticism, that idiotic criticism, anymore," Bryant said of never having won a title without Shaq. "That's the biggest thing. I don't have to hear that stuff anymore. ... It feels like I'm dreaming right now. I can't believe this moment is here."