Bryant scores 40 as Lakers take first step toward title
Published 12:45 am Friday, June 5, 2009
LOS ANGELES (AP) — One step toward redemption, one step toward a ring.
Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers began the NBA finals with power and purpose.
Bryant, playing like a man possessed, scored 40 points and the Lakers, who have waited nearly one year for a chance to erase bitter memories of a Boston beatdown and a championship they felt belonged to them, pounded the Orlando Magic 100-75 in Game 1 on Thursday night.
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This year, nothing short of a 15th title will do for the Lakers.
And with the sensational Bryant out front, they may be on their way.
Game 2 is Sunday night at star-studded Staples Center, where actors Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio and rapper Kanye West had front-row seats to see another virtuoso performance by Bryant, who scored 18 points in the third quarter as the Lakers opened a 26-point lead.
The last time the Lakers were seen in the finals, they were heading toward their locker room in Boston last June and summer break after being drubbed by 39 points in a series-ending Game 6 by the Celtics. The renewed rivalry between the league’s superpowers never panned out.
Bryant and his teammates have used that humiliation to motivate them all season and throughout these playoffs.
They are on a mission.
The Magic, who went 2-0 against the Lakers in the regular season, appeared a touch overwhelmed in their first finals appearance since 1995. Not even the return of All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson from a four-month layoff following shoulder surgery could help the Eastern Conference champions.
Orlando center Dwight Howard was engulfed by two and three Lakers every time he touched the ball and scored 12 points — 10 on free throws — on just 1-of-6 shooting.
‘‘We did a good job on him, but he’ll be ready to go Game 2,’’ Bryant said. ‘‘We worked very hard on the perimeter, keeping those guys out of rhythm, then we did a good job on him inside — giving him different looks.’’
And the Magic’s outside shooters, so deadly while eliminating MVP LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference finals, were off the mark.
The Magic went just 8-of-23 on 3s and shot only 30 percent overall. They are facing some daunting odds, too.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson, seeking a record 10th title, is 43-0 in series in which his team wins Game 1.
On the dry-erase board in Orlando’s locker room, coach Stan Van Gundy, in handwriting as neat as a schoolteacher’s, devoted two sections on how he wanted his team to defend Bryant.
The self-proclaimed ‘‘Black Mamba’’ slithered around Magic defenders with ease. Bryant scored an effortless 18 points in the first half and then took over in the third quarter, scoring 18 of L.A.’s 29 points with an assortment of jumpers, fadeaways and layups.
‘‘He was great. He was tremendous,’’ said Van Gundy, who felt his team did a poor job defending the Lakers’ pick and roll. ‘‘We were giving him too much space on his pull-up jumpers and he did a good job of attacking us. I know this: We are a lot better than we showed.’’
With the 24-second shot clock running down on one possession, he froze Mickael Pietrus with a head fake and then sliced between Howard and Rashard Lewis, who looked as if they might applaud him, too. Moments later, Bryant whipped a pass to teammate Trevor Ariza, who buried a 3-pointer to make it 80-58.
Bryant pumped both fists and yelled toward Ariza. But this time, Bryant, who can be demanding of those around him, was offering support. Accused of being aloof and selfish, he has become a better teammate and a better leader.
On the eve of Game 1, Bryant said winning his first title since teammate Shaquille O’Neal was traded in 2004 was not that important to him. Bryant bristled at the notion that he wouldn’t have any of his three titles — from 2000-02 — without Shaq as nonsense.
He says he wants No. 4 because it’s the one in front of him.
And he’s three wins from getting it.
Nelson sat the first quarter as he has throughout the playoffs, but Van Gundy started him in the second quarter and the healed guard made an immediate impact.
Nervously chomping on his black mouthpiece and darting as always, he made a sweet bounce pass to Marcin Gortat for a dunk on Orlando’s first possession in the period. Nelson then set up Lewis for a 3 before making his first basket in four months on a short baseline jumper.
Nelson was back and the Magic, who dethroned the champion Celtics and toppled King James, looked as if they’d give the Lakers a run.
Bryant, though, outran them by himself.
Notes: Bryant’s 40 were a career high in the finals, and it was the 10th time he has scored 40 or more in the playoffs. … Van Gundy said the toughest part of his decision to play Nelson was telling guard Tyronn Lue he would be inactive. … Bryant is ranked as the world’s 10th biggest celebrity by Forbes. Bryant was the second highest ranked athlete, trailing only Tiger Woods, who was No. 5. According to the magazine, Bryant made $45 million in salary and endorsements this year. … With 206 playoff wins, Jackson trails only Hall of Fame hockey coach Scotty Bowman (223) for the most wins in postseason history. … Van Gundy drew a huge laugh before the game when he was asked if he was frightened by facing Jackson and his fingers full of nine NBA rings. ‘‘I guess if one of the NBA players threatened to kick my butt, I’d be intimidated,’’ Van Gundy said. ‘‘Phil sitting down there on his chair doesn’t intimidate me.’’
Thursday’s Game One
Turkoglu 3-11 6-6 13, Lewis 2-10 2-2 8, Howard 1-6 10-16 12, Alston 2-9 2-2 6, Lee 3-10 0-0 7, Pietrus 5-13 1-3 14, Battie 1-3 0-0 2, Gortat 2-4 0-0 4, Nelson 3-9 0-0 6, Redick 1-2 0-0 3. Totals 23-77 21-29 75.
L.A. LAKERS (100)
Ariza 1-4 0-0 3, Gasol 7-12 2-2 16, Bynum 3-8 3-4 9, Fisher 4-6 0-0 9, Bryant 16-34 8-8 40, Odom 5-11 1-2 11, Walton 4-5 1-2 9, Farmar 0-3 0-0 0, Vujacic 0-1 0-0 0, Powell 1-2 0-0 3, Brown 0-2 0-0 0, Mbenga 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 41-89 15-18 100.
Orlando 24 19 15 17 — 75
L.A. Lakers 22 31 29 18 — 100
3-Point Goals—Orlando 8-23 (Pietrus 3-5, Lewis 2-4, Redick 1-1, Turkoglu 1-3, Lee 1-4, Nelson 0-2, Alston 0-4), L.A. Lakers 3-9 (Fisher 1-1, Powell 1-1, Ariza 1-2, Bryant 0-1, Farmar 0-1, Odom 0-3). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Orlando 49 (Howard 15), L.A. Lakers 64 (Odom 14). Assists—Orlando 10 (Nelson 4), L.A. Lakers 18 (Bryant 8). Total Fouls—Orlando 21, L.A. Lakers 23. A—18,997 (18,997).