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.
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.
June 4, Staples Center, Los Angeles
LAKERS 100, MAGIC 75
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
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
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
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.