ORLANDO, Fla. – Kobe Bryant jumped and punched the air. He did it again, seven years of pent up frustration freed in a fit of joy.
This was the one he wanted more than all the others.
The one to top them all.
One year after failing miserably in the finals against Boston, Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers found redemption. They finished a season they felt was theirs with a 99-86 win over the Orlando Magic on Sunday night in Game 5 to win the 15th NBA title in franchise history.
For Bryant, this was the missing piece from his resume, his fourth championship and first without former teammate Shaquille O’Neal.
“I don’t have to hear that criticism, that idiotic criticism anymore,” said Bryant, the finals MVP. “It was annoying.”
For Lakers coach Phil Jackson, this was title No. 10, moving him past legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach for the most by a coach in league history.
“I’ll smoke a cigar in honor of Red,” Jackson said. “He was a great guy.”
For Pau Gasol. For Derek Fisher. For Lamar Odom. For Trevor Ariza and for Andrew Bynum and the rest of the Lakers, this was a title to savor.
“It’s a dream come true,” Gasol said. “The completion of a goal.”
Odom scored 17 points, Ariza had 15, Gasol 14 and 15 rebounds, and Fisher, whose two big 3s in Game 4 saved L.A., had 13 points.
It took longer than Bryant expected, but he has stepped from O’Neal’s enormous shadow — at last.
Bryant averaged 32.4 points, 7.4 assists, 5.6 rebounds and more than a dozen cold-blooded glares per game. He wasn’t out to make friends in these finals, he was out for redemption. Throughout the playoffs, he didn’t smile. He just snarled and bared his teeth.
“I was just completely locked in,” he said. “I was grumpy for a while and now I’m just ecstatic, like a kid in a candy store.”
O’Neal, who won three titles with Bryant before the pair had a major falling out, was glad to see his former teammate win another.
“Congratulations kobe, u deserve it,” O’Neal said on his Twitter page. “You played great. Enjoy it my man enjoy it.”
Bryant and Jackson, whose relationship strained and briefly snapped under the weight of success, are again at the top of their games.
Following the game, the pair shared a long embrace.
Jackson, who once called Bryant “a selfish player” now sees the 30-year-old in a far different light.
“He’s learned how to become a leader in a way in which people want to follow him,” Jackson said. “That’s really important for him to have learned that because he knew that he had to give to get back in return, and so he’s become a giver rather than just a guy that’s a demanding leader. That’s been great for him and great to watch.”
After the final horn, Bryant and his teammates bounced around the floor of Amway Arena. Moments later, Bryant swept his two daughters, both wearing gold Lakers dresses, into his arms.
It was just as he dreamed.
“It finally felt like a big old monkey was off my back,” he said. “It felt so good to be able to have this moment. For this moment to be here and to reflect back on the season and everything that you’ve been through, it’s top of the list, man.”
Bryant had come up short twice in the finals before, in 2004 with O’Neal against Detroit, and again last season against the Celtics in the renewal of the league’s best rivalry. The Lakers were beaten in six games, losing the finale in Boston by 39 points, a humiliating beatdown that Bryant and his teammates had trouble shaking.
They went to training camp with one goal in mind. This was going to be their season, and except for a few minor missteps, it was.
In the locker room afterward, Bryant made sure Jackson got a champagne shower.
“He took his glasses off, threw his head back and soaked it all in because this is a special time,” Bryant said. “For us to be the team that got him that historic 10th championship is special for us.”
Orlando will be haunted by moments in a series that swung on a few plays and had two overtime games.
After losing Game 1 by 25 points, the Magic had their chance in Game 2 but rookie Courtney Lee missed an alley-oop layup in the final second of regulation. In Game 4, Dwight Howard clanged two free throws with 11.1 seconds, and the Magic allowed Derek Fisher to nail a game-tying 3-pointer to force OT.
Howard, the Magic’s superhero center, was hardly a factor in Game 5. He scored 11 points and took just nine shots. Rashard Lewis scored 18 points, but was only 3 of 12 on 3s for Orlando, which after living on the 3, finally died by it.
The Magic went just 8 of 27 from long range.
When the game ended, Howard didn’t move. As his teammates headed to the locker room, Howard stayed on Orlando’s bench and watched as the Lakers celebrated on the Magic’s floor. Jameer Nelson, Orlando’s point guard who came back for the finals after missing four months with a shoulder injury, finally joined him
The two sat stunned.
“What I just told Jameer is look at it, just see how they’re celebrating,” Howard said. “It should motivate us to want to get in the gym, want to get better.”
Orlando was trying to become the first team to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the finals. They had rallied to knock off Philadelphia and Boston, and then upset LeBron James and Cleveland in the conference finals. The Magic always felt they had a shot at history.
Bryant, though, wouldn’t be denied his place.
“They had an answer,” Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said, “for everything.”