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THREE NIGHTS LATER, BRYANT SHOWED JUST how ready he was to finish things off, doing a little bit of everything to lead the Lakers to their 15th championship. He came from behind to block shots (four). He patiently waited for double teams, then kicked out to open shooters, spacing the floor masterfully. When Howard got the ball in deep, Bryant snaked around the baseline from the big man's blindside to strip the ball, then took off the other way. And when his team needed it, he even scored a little. Two plays in particular stood out.
With Orlando leading 36-31 in the second quarter and the Lakers looking lackluster on offense, Bryant got the ball near the left baseline and faced up Pietrus. In the arena hallway after the previous game, Bryant had commended Pietrus on his defense, telling him, "You know all my moves, I'm going to have to bring out some new s---."
Well, here came the new s---. Bryant jabbed, jabbed, then swung through to the baseline. But instead of using two hands, he essentially threw the ball out and ahead with his left hand, allowing him to sneak by Pietrus. Two Magic defenders came to help, but Bryant kept the ball high and extended it as he drove, finishing with a rattling baseline dunk. Minutes later the Lakers would start a run that put them up 56-46 at the half.
The second play came in the third quarter, with the Lakers up 64-55, when Bryant hit a stunning runner across the lane—coming right to left, switching hands in midair, eluding the reach of Howard and then softly banking in the ball before crashing onto his back.
The Magic had done everything possible on the play and Bryant had still beaten them. "I was just locked in, completely locked in," Bryant said after the game, sitting at a podium in a champagne-soaked T-shirt. "I think it's a matter of understanding the moment."
Not just understanding it but understanding what it takes to lead a team, as Bryant did on this night. Jackson, who with his 10th ring surpassed Red Auerbach's total, told a story about Bryant after the game. "There was a point in Kobe's first, second year when we sat together and watched tape. I wanted him to understand his impact on the game a little bit. 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 the quality 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." Jackson paused. "In the eight years that have ensued, he's learned how to become a leader in a way in which people want to follow him. He knew that he had to give to get back in return."
So a night that began with Orlando still clinging to the hope of righting the series ended with the Lakers hugging on the court, as a surprising number of yellow-clad L.A. fans roared. It had been a long road back from the last championship, seven years ago. The difference this time was that the Lakers had, in Phil and Kobe two great leaders.