- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
THE WORLD WANTED KOBE-LEBRON. IT WANTED THE GREATEST player of one era versus the greatest of the next. It wanted ridiculous ratings and Nike puppets and an endless stream of Vitamin Water ads. (O.K., so maybe the world didn't want those last couple, but certain sectors of the economy sure did.) Instead it got Dwight versus Kobe. Or was it Stan versus Kobe? Or maybe just a whole bunch of guys versus Kobe? ¶ Leading up to the Finals it was hard to tell, so strong was the focus on Bryant and the Lakers. This was Kobe's chance to separate himself from the legacy of Shaq, his chance to win his first ring as the undisputed star of a team. Of course Shaq's shadow also loomed over Orlando, where the Magic's last trip to the Finals came with a large, lumbering big man in the middle. Its new big man, Dwight Howard, lacked Shaq's mean streak but did a lot more soaring than lumbering. In the conference finals against Cleveland, Howard had been a one-man wrecking crew. By the time he was done with the Cavs, Cleveland's coaches had tried just about everything to stop him—from sending doubles early, to pushing him up the lane toward the help, to rotating early from the weak side—but with limited success.
The Lakers promised a stiffer challenge. Up front they boasted the solid Andrew Bynum, as well as the crafty Pau Gasol. The help defenders, especially Trevor Ariza and Lamar Odom, were long and quick. There was talk that Phil Jackson might play Howard straight up. There was also talk he'd swarm him at every touch.
On the other side the Magic had to worry about Kobe. And not just any Kobe but Kobe on a mission. All postseason he'd been relentlessly serious, as intense as at any point in his career. The task of guarding him—for there is no stopping him—would fall to Mickael Pietrus and Courtney Lee, a couple of untested young players. No doubt, they'd be extremely thankful for the presence of Howard, the league's reigning Defensive Player of the Year, looming in the paint.
The series would begin in L.A. and then head to Orlando. Instead of Kobe versus LeBron, we would get Disneyland versus Disney World. Let the games begin.
THE WEEK LEADING UP TO GAME 1 WAS FILLED WITH the usual idle media chatter. Did Lamar Odom eat too many sweets for his own good (potential sugar crash, warned an L.A. doctor)? Would Magic guard Jameer Nelson make a triumphant (or perhaps team chemistry-destroying) return to the court? And what was Shaq thinking about all this? (The answer came via Twitter of course: He was rooting for Kobe and the Lakers.)
Then came Game 1 and by halftime all anyone wanted to talk about was Kobe Bryant. Sure, the Magic came out strong, and Nelson indeed made a triumphant early return, with four assists and four points in the second quarter. His play the rest of the game, however, was less inspired. Returning from a torn labrum in his right shoulder, the All-Star guard hadn't played in four months and, eventually, it showed. He looked hesitant to shoot and when he did, it wasn't pretty. Afterward, Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said, "In the second half I didn't think he was very good at all...but I don't think you lay a 25-point loss on Jameer."
Nelson's woes hardly mattered once Kobe got going. Starting with 6½ minutes left in the second quarter and continuing until two minutes remained in the third, he put on a clinic. Leaners, runners, floaters, fadeaways, a surreal hanging bank shot against Pietrus (one of the supposed Kobe-stoppers).... During that time span Bryant scored 30 points. The Magic scored 22.
After the game various Lakers took turns marveling at their teammate. "Best player in basketball," said Sasha Vujacic. "That's just what he does," said Bynum. Bryant finished with 40 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and at least 15 scowls. Asked about those, he said, "I just want it so bad, that's all. You just put everything you have into the game and your emotions kind of flow out."
Behind Kobe, the Lakers pulled away, and by the end of the third quarter it was a blowout, with the Lakers up more than 20 points. The L.A. crowd roared in delight—the celebs ranging from Jack Nicholson in his familiar seat to Kanye West behind his signature sunglasses. This was what they'd been waiting for, ever since the end of the crushing loss to the Celtics the year before.