Kobe Bryant, a step slowed because of an unnerving monkey on his back and with a terrible scowl on his face, shuffled a foot closer to greatness.
And yet, as he stood on that podium accepting his Finals MVP trophy and shepherding in another year of Lakers hate, the Staples marketing campaign was probably ringing in his head.
“That was easy.”
He had it coming and he knew it. But this one can very well change the way we think of No. 24 forever — and the Orlando Magic.
You see, championships change people. Championship No. 4 for Bryant, and No. 10 for his Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson, are the signifying moments of their careers. Where before they were guaranteed a bust in Naismith Memorial, today we can now begin to argue which rung these guys land on in the ladder of greatness.
For the Magic, we can begin to argue who gave up first and when. Last night’s performance, on their own court nonetheless, was just sad to see. Half the guys on the team looked defeated before the third quarter started.
What did Stan Van Gundy say to them? Not much apparently, because he was noticeably voiceless for the last 16 minutes of the game.
At first, I remarked to myself and others that they looked apathetic. And then, just pathetic. At one point, the puns were coming endlessly. But after awhile, as you really got to see that the spirit of the team was on ice, the only feeling I could comprehend was pity. They simply weren’t ready for a team chock-filled with veterans and seething with anger from defeat one year prior. They had walked into a massacre and didn’t have the sense of mind to dress the part. Whatever mojo the team carried from its Game 3 win was in the far distant past.
Dwight Howard was rendered useless because of foul trouble. And as he was soundly outplayed by Pau Gasol, everybody in the building was looking for somebody to step up in his place. Rashard Lewis dropped a nominal 18 points, getting some garbage time 3-pointers in the fourth after the game had been decided. Hedo Turkoglu was just a warm body on the court, finishing with 12.
Rafer Alston, who had inspired the club with his tenacious scoring ability throughout the playoffs, gave the greatest example of the Magic’s futility. Sensing urgency in the third quarter that his team was likely not in the game mentally, Alston dribble faked and sliced to the basket looking for a quick deuce to get some inside game going for an outside game team. He managed to squirm around the 7-foot Gasol to get an easy layup opportunity. Except he didn’t make it. He was frustrated. The Magic didn’t score on that possession and Alston didn’t recover from the erred play.
For the rest of the game, we got to watch the guys in blue put on pouty faces as if we were supposed to feel sorry for them.
Pity is worse than sorry. They don’t deserve sorry.
There is a saving grace here for Orlando: Another year makes them stronger. These guys were obviously outplayed, outhustled and outbanged. The Lakers took it to them and it started up top with Gasol going at Howard, and then No. 24 going at everyone. You can expect the Magic to return with a vengeance and hopefully more warm bodies next year.
As for Bryant, the assassin, you could already see how the championship had affected him. In fact, it was the most obvious of observations. As the cameras cut away and Bryant exited to celebrate with his family, friends and teammates, there was a huge grin on his face. This after not smiling for weeks and unveiling a new scowl just for the series.
You see, people do change.
Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in The Union.