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.