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Lakers, Kobe MVP, How's Shaq's ass taste now ?

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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Kobe Bryant's defining moment of these NBA Finals wasn't on center stage for all the world to see. For a player who has delivered so many highlight plays throughout his 13 years in the NBA, this series that solidified his career was strangely devoid of his personal stamp. There was no Junior Sky Hook, no Spectacular Move, no Shrug, no Shot.

Playoff schedule
Los Angeles 4, Orlando 1
Perhaps that's why watching him as the Lakers defeated the Magic in five games didn't feel as if we were witnessing one of the great statistical performances in Finals history, even though his 32.4 points and 7.4 assists made this the best combination of those categories since Jerry West averaged 37.9 points and 7.4 assists in the 1969 Finals. Speakers need sound bites, and players need YouTubeable moments to speed through the media sphere.

It's not Bryant's fault that his 40-point, eight-rebound, eight-assist night in Game 1 came during a blowout, so he didn't have the chance to be clutch. And it worked out that he didn't even make the pass that led to the pivotal play of the series: Derek Fisher's 3-pointer to tie Game 4 with 4.6 seconds left in regulation. Kobe made the pass that led to the pass.

What Bryant had was a private realization, a chance to collect his thoughts and sort out what this seven-year odyssey since his last championship has meant. It came with 8:19 left in the fourth quarter of Game 5, right after Bryant hit a 3-pointer that put he Lakers ahead by 16 points, forcing yet another Orlando Magic timeout. Bryant stopped just before he got to the bench, bent over and held his clenched fists in front of his face, looking like a ski jumper about to head down the ramp.

Finally, the moment was at hand. The particulars, such as the final score of this 99-86 victory that brought the Lakers their 15th championship, were a mere formality. The Magic were done. Bryant had released his final arrow, a strike to the heart. He had completed his journey from the tears he shed when the San Antonio Spurs ended the Lakers' run of championships in 2003 ... to the stunned expression when he confessed to adultery but claimed innocence when he was accused of sexually assaulting a Colorado hotel worker later that summer ... to the poor Finals performance in 2004 ... the breakup of the Kobe-Shaq-Phil triangle that followed ... the only playoff absence of his career in 2005 ... first-round exits at the hands of the Phoenix Suns the next two years ... a humbling loss to the Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals that dimmed his still-shiny Most Valuable Player trophy ... a gold medal in the Beijing Olympics ... and now his first Finals MVP award.

It's draining just to type up that recap. Only after the journey was finished could Bryant truly reveal some of the emotions behind it, how it felt to hear the constant criticism that he couldn't win a championship without Shaq ("It was like Chinese water torture"), and how special the three they won together really were ("It's probably the first dynamic duo that had two alpha males on one team; we managed to make it work for three championships").

And share his thoughts with 8:19 remaining, when he knew he had his fourth ring.

"It felt like a big old monkey was off my back," Bryant said. "It felt so good to be able to have this moment. We tried not to envision it too much, you know what I mean, because you just get too excited. You try not to think about it, just think about playing the game, and for this moment to be here and to reflect back on the season and everything that you've been through ... it's the top of the list, man."

He has his list, we have ours. Can't move him past Michael Jordan on the greatest players list, and we shouldn't even start consideration unless (or until) Bryant gets two more rings. He's grown tired of the Jordan comparisons but, like so many other things in his life, he brought it on himself, from the way he jacked MJ's style when he first got into the league to the way he waved four fingers in the air from the victors' stage, just as Jordan used to keep tabs of his championships in the moments after each one.

Bryant had Jordan to serve as a template, but he's also been cursed by that inescapable silhouette. If we could just view him in his own context, in a Jordan-free world, we'd see Bryant for what he's been and what he's become.

Magic coach Stan Van Gundy's response when asked to compare Kobe and LeBron Jamesworks just as well for Bryant-Jordan.


To find stats and info on Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, check out ESPNDB: NBA Finals.

• ESPNDB: Kobe Bryant
"When you get two guys like that," Van Gundy said, "you want to compare the two of them, what I always say is, 'You pick first, I'll take second pick and I'll be happy as hell.' Those guys are great, great players."

Because this ring was required for Bryant's candidacy to be the greatest, it means the most to him. It doesn't have the historical significance of Jackson's record 10th as a coach, which moved him past Red Auerbach into a realm of his own. It doesn't have the poignancy of the stories of Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza and Fisher, who have lost an infant son, a brother and watched a daughter battle eye cancer, respectively. It doesn't have the international ramifications of Pau Gasolwinning a championship for everyone listening en Espanol.

Yet even though this had the greatest individual impact on Bryant, it happened because he submitted himself to the team. The Lakers grabbed control of the game with a 16-0 burst in the second quarter that was highlighted by three assists (and only two points) for Bryant.

It started when Kobe had Rafer Alston switched on him and he posted up the smaller player. When he got the ball he didn't attack; he waited for the help defender to leave Fisher and then passed out to Fisher, who knocked down the open 3-pointer. On the next possession, he passed to Ariza for a 3-pointer. Bryant threw in a high-arching jumper of his own, then found Ariza for another 3-pointer. It was on, and the Magic were on their way out. And Bryant, in a change from the way he was four years ago, didn't try to do it all by himself.

"Kobe was the thrust that created shots for guys and the opportunity for guys on the floor," Jackson said.

"That was really our chance. And we said at halftime, we get another opportunity like that, we have this game in hand if we can just crack one more three-minute span like that and create some turnovers and run-outs and do it again. Kobe said, 'I'll push the guys and I'll find guys if you guys run the court.'"

So it was complete, Phil's greatest challenge of convincing the guy he once deemed uncoachable to play for the good of the team, Bryant's challenge to be viewed as one of the best individuals players ever, the latter getting his results only after yielding to the former.

Even in Bryant's time to shine it got crowded quickly, from the mob of teammates that surrounded him after he leaped to celebrate the final buzzer to the names that inevitably came up afterward, such as Jordan and Shaq.

I showed Bryant the message Shaq sent out over Twitter, part of a string of congratweets O'Neal sent to individual Lakers, but the only one that turned Shaq's rap lyrics from last summer back on himself: "Congratulations kobe, u deserve it. You played great. Enjoy it my man enjoy it. And I know what yur sayin rt now "Shaq how my ass taste."

Bryant laughed and shook his head.

"That boy got no sense," he said as he walked away.

Kobe and Shaq will always be linked. But Bryant will no longer be encumbered by him

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