Band of gold: Lakers are champions again
Seven years after their last championship, five years after a series of humbling losses in Detroit, and 362 days after a futile Finals effort against Boston, the Lakers were back, in a big way.
A victory parade will proceed through Los Angeles on Wednesday, the celebration becoming official after the Lakers thumped the Orlando Magic on Sunday, 99-86, to win the NBA Finals, four games to one.
Undeniably, it was Kobe Bryant’s night. He had 30 points, six rebounds, five assists, and one very important addition to his portfolio. He finally won a championship without Shaquille O'Neal.
Two years and a month after demanding to be traded from the Lakers, he smiled in the final minute of Game 5, turning to teammate Lamar Odom and saying, “It’s over.”
It was over, indeed, but successful for several Lakers, each of whom left the building having fulfilled his own story line.
For Bryant, it meant a fourth championship ring, leaving him one behind Magic Johnson and two behind Michael Jordan.
It was similarly triumphant for Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who earned a 10th championship ring, one more than Boston Celtics luminary Red Auerbach.
For Odom, it was the high point of a 10-year career that started with the Clippers, transitioned to Miami and was thrown fully into the spotlight when he was one of the names sent to the Lakers when they traded O'Neal.
For Derek Fisher, it was a fourth championship ring made all the more memorable by his clutch three-pointers in Game 4.
And for Pau Gasol, it meant the rewarding part of a voyage that began with his trade to the Lakers from a sagging Memphis franchise 16 months ago.
It was the Lakers’ 15th championship (their 10th in L.A.), meaningful to Bryant for many reasons.
“I don’t have to hear that idiotic criticism anymore,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. I don’t have to hear that stuff anymore. I can’t believe this moment is here. They won’t see us as losers. L.A. is brutal, man. Now when I go to Disney World and Disneyland, I can enjoy the moment. I don’t have to answer questions about, ‘What the hell happened to you guys?’ ”
Bryant can opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent July 1, though he offered a preview of the future when he talked about the Lakers’ possibilities down the road.
“When next season comes around, we’ll go from there,” he said. “We’ll be ready to work again, that’s for sure.”
Bryant can re-sign with the Lakers for five years and about $135 million, more than any other team can offer. The return of the Lakers as a dominant power will also affect Bryant’s decision, according to sources close to the 13-year veteran.
The “M-V-P” chants from a surprisingly vocal contingent of Lakers fans again had meaning for Bryant after he was selected Finals MVP a month after Cleveland’s LeBron James earned the regular-season award.
It’s safe to say Bryant would rather have this one.
He was somber throughout the Finals, but, of course, it was just his definition of being focused.
“I was grumpy for a while,” he said. “Now I’m just ecstatic, like a kid in a candy store.”
After the game, Bryant embraced several teammates, Jackson watching it all while smiling. Bryant and Fisher then shared a long hug.
Jackson acknowledged the importance of passing Auerbach, calling it a “remarkable accomplishment,” and then praised the Lakers.
“I think I’ve always said this before -- the journey is important,” Jackson said. “This was no exception, this team.”
A year after being demolished by Boston in Game 6 of the Finals, the Lakers handled the Magic to become the first team since Detroit in 1989 to win the championship the season after losing in the Finals.
The Lakers trailed halfway through the second quarter, 40-36, but took off on a 16-0 run that seemed to stun the Magic. Trevor Ariza had seven points during the run, and Fisher had five as the Magic went 4 minutes 25 seconds without scoring a point.
Orlando made a brief run early in the third quarter, cutting a 10-point deficit to five, but Odom answered with three-pointers on consecutive possessions and the Magic never threatened again. Odom had 17 points and 10 rebounds. Gasol had 14 points and 15 rebounds.
The victory marked the culmination of a twisting, turning postseason. The Lakers looked uninspired in getting past Utah in the first round before being taken to the maximum seven games by an undermanned Houston team.
But they won the Western Conference by breaking a 2-2 series tie against Denver with two impressive efforts.
Then came the Finals, and the restoration of the Lakers as a championship franchise.