Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Bryant has a chance to stamp his legacy

It took longer than he had hoped but by finally stepping out of Shaquille O'Neal's enormous shadow last season, many felt Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant put the final stamp on a brilliant basketball legacy.
He didn't.

Four NBA championships, an MVP award and an Olympic Gold Medal may have already convinced those of us who cover the game that Bryant is one of the all-time greats. But, he still has something left to prove to himself -- Kobe has to beat the Boston Celtics, something the Lakers rarely do.

The league's two marquee franchises will fight over the Lawrence O'Brien Trophy for a record 12th time when the NBA Finals kick off in Hollywood on Thursday, a rivalry that dates all the way back to the 1958-59 season when the Lakers nickname actually made some sense and the team still called Minneapolis home.

The Celtics' and the game's ultimate winner, Bill Russell, dominated the early years of the rivalry. In fact, it's tough to call anything a rivalry when one side is so dominant. Red Auerbach's Celtics took the Lakers all seven times they met in the finals.

Things lay dormant for 15 years until Larry Bird and Magic Johnson "saved" the NBA by bringing their storied college rivalry to the pros. Bird avenged his loss at Indiana State to Magic's Michigan State Spartans in the 1979 NCAA Finals when the Celtics got past the Lakers in seven games to win the 1983-84 NBA title.

Johnson and his Lakers responded the next season as LA finally beat Boston in the finals for the first time. Magic also won the rubber match two years later before the rivalry went cold again, this time for 20 years as the Celtics struggled mightily in the post-Bird era.

Of all the legendary names in Lakers lore, Magic stands above the rest because it was his teams that finally beat the hated Celtics.

Kobe got his chance when Boston basketball chief Danny Ainge re-ignited things by acquiring both Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen prior to the 2007-08 season. The two All-Stars teamed with Paul Pierce to create the "Boston Three Party" and the Celtics were relevant again. A 17th Boston championship was the result as Garnett and his Celtics got the best of Bryant's Lakers.

A rematch could have been in the offing last season, but a knee injury to Garnett derailed any hopes of a Boston repeat. Instead, LA earned its 15th championship by taking Orlando in five games.

Bryant claims he didn't care who the Lakers met in the NBA Finals this season but that's tough to believe when you consider just how competitive he is. It was these same Celtics that turned him away from his first championship without Shaq, and embarrassed the Lakers in the process by clinching the title with an emphatic 39-point rout.

The defensive-minded Celtics went into that series with a simple game plan: make someone else beat them. Bryant was double- and triple-teamed every time he touched the ball with the intent of getting it out of his hands. but the superstar didn't trust his teammates and took contested shot after contested shot, finishing the set shooting just over 40 percent.

The Lakers' frontline, minus the oft-injured Andrew Bynum, was beaten up physically by Garnett and Company while Pierce did the damage on the offensive end.

"Last time we played [the Celtics], it was a great learning experience for us," Bryant said. "It taught us what it takes to be a champion. With the defensive intensity they play with, the tenacity they play with, we learned a great deal in that series."

This time Bryant will have his center, albeit a limited one in Bynum, who is dealing with yet another knee injury, as well as another defensive stopper, Ron Artest, to help curtail Pierce as he shoots for the final piece of the puzzle that is his career.

As good as Magic was, his game can't match up with Kobe's. Johnson was certainly a better pure playmaker and more versatile but Bryant's offensive skills and ability as an on-ball defender give him the edge. In today's game, LeBron James might be younger, stronger and a little more athletic but Bryant is still the biggest bully on the block -- just ask Grant Hill.

With another trip to the finals in his grasp during Game 6 of the Western Conference finals against Phoenix with the Suns charging hard, Kobe let loose with a couple of daggers. First, he spun away from Hill and buried a fadeaway jumper. Just over a minute later, with Hill in his shorts, Bryant pump-faked once, before rising above the former Duke star to nail another jumper right in front of the Phoenix bench. Bryant smiled after the second shot and playfully tapped Suns coach Alvin Gentry.

"Right now he's the best player in basketball," Gentry said after the game. "And it's not even close."

A superlative scorer, ball-handler and defender, the Philadelphia native is the scariest closer west of Mariano Rivera and the NBA's best since the glory days of Michael Jordan.

Bryant is officially done playing with his peers -- he's now playing history.

Watch out Magic, here he comes.
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