Orlando, Fla. – Kobe Bryant has the NBA title he needed most – the one without Shaq.
Bryant’s seven-year chase of a coveted championship is over. He’s got his fourth, and Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson his record 10th, a ring for each finger. One year after failing in the NBA Finals, Bryant and the Lakers have redemption, and all the rewards that go with it.
They earned their 15th title on Sunday night as Bryant scored 30 points, and Pau Gasol added 14 points and 15 rebounds in a 99-86 win in Game 5 over the Orlando Magic, who ran out of comebacks.
It took longer than Bryant expected, but he has stepped out of former teammate Shaquille O’Neal’s enormous shadow – at last. His fourth championship made a strong case for Bryant being the league’s best player since Michael Jordan retired.
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O’Neal, now with the Phoenix Suns, was glad to see Bryant win another title.
“Congratulations kobe, u deserve it,” O’Neal said on his Twitter page. “You played great. Enjoy it my man enjoy it.”
Bryant’s coach stands alone.
Jackson, the chilled-out, bow-legged Zen Master who won six league titles in the 1990s with Jordan in Chicago, now has won No. 4 with Los Angeles and broke a tie with legendary Boston coach Red Auerbach as the winningest coach in Finals history.
“I’ll smoke the cigar tonight in memory of Red,” Jackson said. “He was a great guy.”
Bryant and Jackson, whose relationship strained and briefly snapped under the weight of success, are again at the top.
Nothing was going to stop Bryant, who spent the postseason scowling, snarling and baring his teeth at anything in his path. Only when the victory was his in the final seconds did the Finals MVP allow himself to smile.
After the final horn, he leaped into the air and was quickly engulfed by his teammates. Bryant then gave a long, heartfelt hug and shared a few words with Jackson before sweeping up his daughters, both wearing gold Lakers dresses, into his arms.
Bryant had come up short twice in the Finals before, in 2004 with O’Neal against Detroit, and again last season against the Celtics in the renewal of the league’s best rivalry. The Lakers were beaten in six games, losing the finale in Boston by 39 points, a humiliating beatdown that Bryant and his teammates had trouble shaking.
They went to training camp with one goal in mind. This was going to be their season, and except for a few minor missteps, it was.
“It’s so tough to win championships,” Bryant said. “We started over from scratch. Here we are again. This really feels like a dream.”
After beating Utah in the first round, Los Angeles was forced to go seven games against Houston, which lost center Yao Ming to an injury. The Lakers then took care of Denver in six games, setting up a matchup with the shoot-from-their-hips Magic, making its first visit to the Finals since O’Neal took the team there in 1995.
Orlando will be haunted by moments in a series that swung on a few plays and featured two overtime games.
After losing Game 1 by 25 points, the Magic had a chance to win Game 2 but rookie Courtney Lee missed an alley-oop layup in the final second of regulation. In Game 4, Dwight Howard clanged two free throws with 11.1 seconds to go, and the Magic allowed Derek Fisher to nail a game-tying 3-pointer to force OT.
Howard, the Magic’s superhero center, was hardly a factor in Game 5. He scored 11 points, took just nine shots and never got a chance to get going. Rashard Lewis scored 18 points, but he misfired on nine of 12 from 3-point range for Orlando, which after living on the 3, finally died by it.