Forget Shaq; The Lakers Won This Title Without Kobe

Roger PAnalyst IJune 16, 2009

That's a lie, obviously.

Kobe Bryant was the clearly the biggest part and the moving force behind the Lakers' 2009 championship run.

But in the Finals, it felt like Kobe was behind the scenes. Like he was conducting the orchestra, instead of playing a solo, for five games.

And perhaps it's because of Kobe's deference to his team, and not in spite of it, that he has a fourth ring to add to his trophy case.

The numbers sure don't lie. Kobe's line of 32.4 points and 7.4 assists per game is the most prolific points-assists combo since Jerry West—who is responsible for Kobe being a Laker, and subsequently called Bryant the most talented player to ever wear a Lakers uniform—averaged only slightly more points in the 1969 Finals.

A Spider Graph comparing Kobe's performance during the regular season to his Finals showing reflects clearly how he stepped up his game when it mattered most.

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With those numbers, it's likely that in a few years we'll remember this Finals series differently. We'll look at the box score and remember a series where Kobe, in typical Black Mamba style, took over fourth quarters and made clutch shots and compelled the Lakers to victory by sheer force of will.

We probably won't remember Pau Gasol scoring more than half the team's points in overtime to bring one game home.

We probably won't remember Derek Fisher hitting two big threes to bring home another.

We won't remember Lamar Odom or Trevor Ariza being key in stretches, or Andrew Bynum's solid key defense that doesn't show at all in a box score.

Nor will we remember this series, with its 4-1 finish, being close at times.

Team averages over the course of the series show two teams that matched up with each other decently well. A 4-1 win looks like dominance, but graphing the series makes it look anything but lopsided.

What we had in this Finals was a team that—finally—put all the pieces together and resulted in a whole greater than just the sum of its roster talent. This was the Lakers team that had struggled beating Houston in seven games, and looked fatigued before putting away Denver in six.

But whether due to coaching, luck, or the touch of divinity, in the Finals this lineup of players—recognized all season as the deepest, most talented roster in the league—finally clicked.

Kobe wasn't the defender-taunting, ball-hogging Kobe we tolerated for so long. His game was instead that of quiet determination.

It didn't feel like he scored 30 points a game, because he didn't make himself the limelight. He made it all about coming away with the Larry O'Brien Trophy, and whatever that required.

It's not that Kobe wasn't there, because he was. It was that he'd stopped being Kobe the individual, and he'd become, instead, a Laker—absorbed in a common goal and nothing distinguishing individual personality over the other Lakers on the floor.

Kobe even tried as hard as he could to give it away. He had a potential game-winner blocked by Hedo Turkoglu to send Game Two into overtime. In Game Four, the other overtime game, he shot only 2-for-9 in the fourth quarter when the Lakers could have iced it without an extra period.

But that's the point—even when it felt like Kobe was trying too hard, his teammates were there to pick up the slack.

Game Two was when Pau Gasol redeemed himself for last year's "soft" Finals performance. And Game Four was when Derek Fisher proved that yes, Virginia, you can still play ball at age 34.

So it was perhaps less that Kobe changed, as we make a big deal of, but more that the Lakers' stars aligned at the right time.

But we keep coming back to Kobe, as we always do. He won his fourth title, stepping out of the ample-sized shadow of Shaquille O'Neal and directly into the shadow of Michael Jordan.

He got the monkey off his back, to use his own phrase, and silenced the haters who have always held it over his head that the Big Diesel was in charge for those first three rings.

Kobe, thereby, cements his place as the second-greatest shooting guard of all time, behind only MJ. He's not Clyde Drexler anymore, he's not Jerry West, he's not Pistol Pete.

He's better.

And for goodness' sake, he's certainly not Scottie Pippen anymore, doomed to always be remembered as a sidekick.

It's certainly a temptation to think that one player alone can win it all in the game of basketball. It couldn't be so in football, or baseball, or soccer for obvious reasons. But in basketball—with a relatively small court, and only five players—superstars carry so much more weight.

And we certainly can't say that the "other" superstar in this series didn't show up. Dwight Howard was a titan of defense in the paint, having at least two blocks in each game and blowing the roof off with nine in Game Four. But his team went cold, and the squad that lived through their previous playoff series by the three, died in this one by that same three.

The Spider Graphs for both stars are impressive

The two players almost couldn't be more different—one a shooting guard and a ruthless scoring assassin who makes plays for himself and (now) others, and the other a huge piece of beef in the paint, working a reliable post game and altering shots with his mere presence—and their graphs show them both excelling in their own departments.

It was, in some ways, a coming-out party for Howard and the Magic, who have nowhere to go but up if they can keep their roster together and grow together as Howard's game matures.

But for Kobe, it's hard to say we didn't see it coming.

All of it. His performance in the Finals, his maturation as a game handler over the last five years, and his fourth ring that nobody can claim belongs to someone else.

In the NBA, greatness isn't measured by playground posturing or showy performance. It's measured by what you accomplish.

Kobe Bryant has accomplished just about everything, including losing himself inside a team goal, en route to winning his fourth championship.

And that's why he's one of the greatest to ever play the game.

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