Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Taste of Redemption...

Last night, for the second time this year, Kobe Bryant tasted a glass of redemption. And judging by the smile the size of Texas on his face, it tasted pretty good.

Roughly one year ago, a dejected Kobe Bryant walked off the court at the Staples Center, in arguably the toughest loss of his career, as it rained green and white all around him. But there was no time to sulk. It was on to Olympic training. There were less than two months for Team USA to make its final preparations for the Olympics, and the clock was ticking. Even after the tragic loss, Bryant didn't miss a beat. In fact, his work ethic impressed 11 of the greatest players in the NBA. By late August, he and his teammates were the Redeem Team.

There was no time for Bryant to rest at that point in time either. The NBA season was starting in two months. 82 Regular season games. 23 playoff games. One more feeling of redemption. And Kobe can finally rest.

Last night, the Lakers left no doubt in the eyes of NBA fans -- it was clear LA was the best team in basketball. In a battle of the last two heavyweights standing, Orlando fired its last punch at the start of Game 5, jumping out to an early 15-6 lead. But Los Angeles weathered the storm, chipping away at the lead in the first, before unleashing an onslaught of punches in the second, which would ultimately lead to the final knockout blow that sent the Magic to the locker room with their heads down.

It was pretty obvious from the second quarter on that the Lakers would have an answer for everything the Magic could throw at them. No one could deny the Lakers. No one could deny Bryant.

It took Bryant quite some time to realize the secret to success. It must have been hard to imagine for him that as the best player in the NBA for all these years, the key to success wasn't him making all the shots. It was him making the right decisions. The right reads, the right shots, the right passes. His coach and teammates made him realize that. And that's when redemption became a reality.

Bryant couldn't have won his first three titles by himself. He didn't. And he definitely didn't win his fourth title by himself either.

Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher, and Trevor Ariza were HUGE in this series.

Gasol shot 60% from the field, averaging over 18 points and 9 rebounds per game. He also drew fouls on Dwight Howard on both the offensive and defensive end. He showed the toughness and strength he lacked in last year's Finals, vindicating all the hard work and time he spent improving his physicality throughout the year.

Derek Fisher hit two of the most clutch shots in NBA Finals history in Game 4, destroying any confidence Orlando had, and closing the door on any hopes of a championship for Orlando as well. He played solid defense throughout the series, and was always there to deliver a dagger on offense.

Lamar Odom proved to be the perfect match for Rashard Lewis. He saw a lot of time off the bench, and made the most out of every minute. He played confident, made huge plays, and hit big-time shots the entire series. Orlando had no answer for him.

Trevor Ariza was probably the most valuable player in my eyes. His defense was phenomenal. His energy, unmatched. It didn't seem like anyone on the Magic wanted it as much as this kid. He out-hustled everyone, shot lights out from three, and made so many big plays in big moments. I also believe he sparked the turning point in Game 5 for the Lakers.

With the game still close in the second quarter, Ariza and Hedo Turkoglu got into an altercation before a timeout. After the break, I watched their matchup to see how they would react to the fight. Right off the bat Turkoglu went at Ariza, but Ariza's defense picked up tremendously. He forced Turkoglu to take an off-balance shot, then came down and hit two threes on the next few possessions. Turkoglu would continue to try and one-up Ariza, but failed everytime, because of Ariza's great defense. Before I knew it, the Lakers had gone on a 16-0 run, and they never looked back. The Lakers can thank Ariza for that. I truly believe it's one of the main reasons the series isn't going back to LA right now.

With the victory, the Lakers added to their legacy of excellence, winning their 15th title in franchise history. Phil Jackson separated himself from the great Red Auerbach, winning his 10th career title -- a feat unmatched in any of the four major sports. He has to be considered the greatest basketball coach of all-time. He won't admit it. But it's an unbelieveable, and unparalleled accomplishment. The numbers don't lie.

Speaking of numbers, Bryant now has 4 NBA titles, 1 without Shaq (had to mention it), and ties O'Neal, Duncan, and Fisher for the most among active players. Bryant's legacy rivals the best in the history of the sport, but I don't think it's fair to compare him to his Airness, Michael Jordan. In eight years, Jordan went 6-6 in the Finals, and did things that can only make us dream to be "Like Mike". Bryant will forever be one of the best players in my eyes, though. I never thought he needed to prove his legacy on his own, but it's nice that he did. I don't think anyone could help but feel happy for Kobe last night. The joy on his face showed every ounce of effort he put into reaching this accomplishment. He truly deserved it.

As for the Magic, they truly didn't deserve it. They blew golden opportunities, showed inexperience and flaws throughout the series, and seemed overmatched from the get-go. There's definitely a lot the Magic can improve on, which is pretty scary if you think about it. Howard has so much potential. Nelson can be so good when healthy. They have a lot of young players with a lot of growing to do. This can be the team to beat for years to come with a lot of effort. They just have to stay together and really work on improving their flaws.

Only time will tell if the Magic will stay together though. Just a day after the Finals, Turkoglu has already opted out of his contract, and may not be returning next year. Turkoglu was their go-to player in the clutch, and might arguably be their best player. This would be a catastrophic loss for the Magic.

Orlando also has to decide what to do with Rafer Alston. It obviously didn't work having Jameer Nelson and Alston split minutes. It was a poor decision to bring Nelson back at that time, and may be one that will haunt them forever. These two need to be split. You can't have two starting point guards on one team, and expect to keep them happy.

As for now, the only players happy are the ones on the Lakers. And the only question that lies ahead is: If this team sticks together, can the Lakers do it again next year? If history has anything to say about it, they will. Phil Jackson has three 3-Peats to his name. Everytime he goes through a gap of not winning a title, he comes back and wins three in a row.

Hey Kobe. Can you do that without Shaq?

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