If this year's Finals are in fact the last go-round for the Lakers
as we know them (and for the sake of argument, let's say they
are), then one thing remained constant throughout the team's
turbulent run. No matter what grabbed the headlines on a given
day, from Karl Malone's balky knee to Phil Jackson's love life,
the Lakers were always about Shaq and Kobe. And, more
specifically, about Kobe.

O'Neal never changes his game, providing only varying degrees of
effort. Injuries and perceived slights may have diminished his
ability or willingness to rebound and play defense, but at least
he never decided to drift out and jack up threes or stage a
shooting strike. All O'Neal wanted--from Bryant, from Jackson,
from owner Jerry Buss, from the media--was the respect he thought
he was due.

Bryant was a different story. As a primary ball handler, he could
manipulate L.A.'s offense on a whim--and he did. In three games
of the Finals alone, his control was on full display. After
scoring 33 points in L.A.'s 99-91 overtime win in Game 2,
including a spectacular game-tying three, he inspired 48 hours of
discussion about whether his play had become Jordanesque. Then in
Game 3 Bryant became passive, taking only 13 shots and scoring a
mere 11 points in an 88-68 loss. He followed up by missing 17 of
25 shots in an 88-80 defeat on Sunday. Worse yet, in that Game 4
loss he wasn't merely missing shots, he was missing shots he
shouldn't have been taking, not in a triangle offense, not by any
pick-and-roll logic and certainly not when O'Neal (36 points, 20
rebounds) was playing as if he'd been loaned Amare Stoudemire's
legs. The Lakers didn't need Bryant to be a hero, just to feed
the ball to O'Neal, grab some rebounds (he had zero) and play
within the system. He couldn't do that.

And that is the most fascinating aspect of the Kobe-Shaq era.
Anytime Bryant tried to mesh with O'Neal they were unbeatable,
even when their supporting cast looked like something out of an
NIT game (as it did during this postseason when Kareem Rush, Luke
Walton and Brian Cook were on the floor). Yet most of the time
Kobe had no interest in a hyphenated coexistence with Shaq, a la
Stockton-Malone. His greater need was to showcase his skills: the
post-up spin move, the fadeaway three, the lefty runner, the dunk
through traffic, the how-did-he-do-that? reverse.

So, in perhaps the most important game of the season on Sunday,
he refused to give an inch. Not after O'Neal ran down the court,
pointed to his chest and shouted, "Give me the ball!"; not when
Jackson looked at Bryant late in the game and told him, "Calm
down!" (Kobe got a technical moments later); not even after the
game. Despite falling behind in the series 3-1, despite having
one of the worst nights of his playoff career, Bryant answered a
reporter's query about how the team would fare in Game 5 by
saying simply, "Don't worry."

It was as if he believed that he alone controlled the team's
destiny. And, in many ways, he did. --Chris Ballard

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Bryant bends L.A.'s offense to his whims.