So, this was the Age of Kobe all along.
Officially going to a level all his own, Kobe Bryant got his fifth title Thursday night, even if it came the hard way, with the game’s greatest clutch player showing the pressure for the first time in his career.
Forcing shots that were wild even for him, Bryant scored 23 points on 24 attempts, 18 of which he missed, but persevered as he and his teammates clawed back from 11 points down to beat the Celtics, 83-79, winning their second title in a row.
Along with acknowledging how crushing the pressure was, Bryant jubilantly admitted that everything he said about not being hurt or not feeling the rivalry was wrong.
“You know, I just wanted it so bad,” Bryant said of his Game 7 flameout. “I wanted it so, so bad.
“On top of that, I was on E. Man, I was really, really tired....
“I was just lying to you guys [about the rivalry with the Celtics]. When you’re in the moment you have to suppress that because if you get caught up in the hype of it all, you don’t really play your best basketball.
“But I mean, you guys know what a student I am of the game. I know every series that the Lakers have played in.
“I mean, I was just a Laker nut and I know every Celtics series, I know every statistic. It meant the world to me as well, but I couldn’t focus on that. I had to focus on playing.”
And as long as this was a night for candor, there was this comment about what this title meant for him:
“Just one more than Shaq!” Bryant said jubilantly.
“I can take that to the bank. You guys know how I am. I don’t forget anything.”
Indeed, Shaquille O’Neal won four titles in a decade with the Lakers and Miami.
Tim Duncan won four with San Antonio.
If a 5-4-4 edge seems thin, Shaq is 38 and a longshot to get No. 5, unless he signs with whoever gets LeBron James.
Oh, right, he already tried that.
Duncan, 34, is a longshot, unless the Spurs get LeBron, Amare Stoudemire or Chris Bosh to take the veterans’ exception.
Bryant, 31, is on a team capable of winning more titles, or three-peating, if Andrew Bynum can ever stay healthy.
If Kobe isn’t in his prime, he’s close enough to have started this postseason with a knee injury that he hid, rescue himself and his teammates in the first round and carry them the rest of the way.
“That’s what drove me nuts and made this even sweeter, was everybody kept talking about he’s old, he’s old,” Bryant said.
“I was hurt. I drained my knee and all of a sudden, I’m reeling off 30-point games like they’re 10-point games and everybody said how young I looked. I was hurt.”
For the record, he played with a broken right index finger since December, a stunt he presumably won’t try again.
No one can know whether the wear and tear from three months of playing hurt contributed to the knee that became sore in April, but that was the injury that dogged him through the postseason.
Next, surgery or surgeries.
“I’m obviously going to have to look at the knee and figure some things out,” said Bryant. “I can’t play a whole entire season the way it is now, but I’ll have to figure some things out.
“Same thing with the finger. You know, without the tape, I can’t grip a basketball. There’s some things I’ll have to figure out in the off-season, but it was good enough to get through this one.”
At 6 feet 6, 205 pounds, Bryant guarded the lightning-quick 6-0, 175-pound Rajon Rondo all series, keeping him out of the lane and knocking his averages down from 15 points and nine assists a game in the first three rounds to 13-7.
Not coincidentally, the Celtics, who averaged 96 points in the first three rounds, averaged 87 in this one.
Now Bryant belongs with the immortals, at least on talk shows, his five titles one behind Michael Jordan’s.
“Does he belong in the conversation?” said Derek Fisher. “For sure.
“The most interesting part about the conversation is that he’s not really close to being done.... There will be a lot more to talk about there.”
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