LOS ANGELES – The Boston Celtics started Kobe Bryant(notes) on the run in the NBA Finals a year ago, discombobulating him with a hellacious defense and a scoring star, Paul Pierce(notes), who played the part of the series closer. Pierce climbed out of a wheelchair, grabbed Game 1 and Bryant never dominated. Truth be told, the dirty little secret of the Celtics' 17th championship coronation is still often overlooked: Bryant had a flawed, forgettable series.
Everywhere Bryant probed, there was a Celtic waiting to stop him. Bodies closed fast in the paint, space dissipated and Boston bottled Bryant into a solitary confinement.
So much chased Bryant into the 100-75 Game 1 victory on Thursday night. Shaquille O'Neal(notes) and LeBron James(notes), Michael Jordan and the Celtics. When everyone else plays for an NBA championship, Bryant's burden hurtles him toward history.
Bryant had come to the Staples Center to take something back, restore his rightful place on basketball Olympus, and his performance turned out to be pure hellfire.
"I just want it so bad," Bryant said softly Thursday night. “I just want it really bad."
Here's how Bryant started the final leg of his first championship without Shaquille O'Neal: He delivered the kind of spirit-breaking Game 1 obliteration of an opponent that Shaq mostly did in those three straight Los Angeles Lakers titles early in the decade.
In two of those series, Shaq dropped over 40 points. Bryant didn't do it with Shaq's brute force, but in his far more surgical way. Forty points, eight rebounds and eight assists burst out of Bryant, a barrage balanced between pick-and-roll jumpers and twisting, contorted drives.
"He had the smell," Phil Jackson said, and there were moments when it made the Lakers coach uneasy Thursday night, when he feared them devolving into that treacherous territory of reliance on Bryant's scoring. Well, that's the price of doing business with basketball's most clutch player.
The Lakers were struggling in the second quarter, Kobe played pop-a-shot on the pick-and-roll. This time, there's no Pierce hanging on him, no Kevin Garnett(notes) and Kendrick Perkins(notes) and P.J. Brown(notes) forever stepping between Bryant and the basket. Truth be told, Bryant had more space, more open looks, in Game 1 than the Celtics gave him in six games a season ago. The Orlando Magic played the worst kind of defense on Bryant: Just praying he would miss.
Bryant had started the series with the best of intentions to move the ball, to get his teammates shots, and still the Lakers fell behind, even with Dwight Howard(notes) on the bench with foul trouble and Jameer Nelson(notes) marching out of a four-month crypt. Bryant wore a scowl on the floor and berated teammates in the huddle. His message to these Lakers goes something like this: Don't bleep this up for me.
"He's pretty intense in his own game," center Andrew Bynum(notes) said. "He's not going out there worried about what other people are doing. If we're not scoring, he's going to carry the load himself."
Bryant did it his way, on his terms and left you wondering just who on the Magic will match his will, who will stop this hellbent mission? There was such a desperation for those thirtysomething Celtics to win that championship a year ago and now, the Magic, destroyed on the boards, porous in the paint, were so overmatched in Game 1 that it left you wondering: Had they come to L.A. obsessed with a championship or could they live with a loss and some souvenir maps of the stars?
Yes, this is the kind of game that Shaq always gave you to start the championship series. Nevertheless, Bryant dictated terms in the 2008 NBA Finals. Boston turned him into a far more reactive player than an aggressor. They took away so much, and now, Bryant tries to get it all back. This time, he manufactured the mood of the series. Which, of course, is dour and desperate.
"My kids call me Grumpy from the Seven Dwarfs," Bryant said. "That's how I've been at home, just a grouch."
He isn't much better at the office. Nevertheless, the Lakers made peace with it long ago. It's the workplace hazard of surrounding yourself with a tortured genius who makes everything possible on the basketball court. In a lot of ways, Bryant looks as withdrawn as ever from his team, as alone as he's ever been. They know to keep their distance when he gets like this, to just do their jobs and spare themselves his wrath.
They're winning 1-0, and Bryant played the part of unimpressed coach when it was over. Oh, the Magic will be back. Oh, they won't go away. He's right. Orlando is resilient and it will play well. Eventually, the Magic will test the Lakers in this series. Bryant was paying the Magic professional and polite tributes, but don't believe for a moment that he thinks Orlando will stand between him and the Larry O'Brien Trophy again. Hell no.
He's been going hard for two full years of long playoff runs and long summer stays with Team USA, and yet Bryant, 30 years old now, has had legendary trainer Tim Grover traveling and working him out for the entire season. Grover was Michael Jordan's fitness guru, and Bryant has turned to Grover to give him the strength, the edge, to go the distance this season. He's been with him for years, but he's barely let Grover leave his side this year.
This is why he still feels so strong, why he wanted to send a message to the Magic late Thursday night, when Bryant said, "This is the best I've felt late in the season in my whole career.
"I feel outstanding."
When it was over on Thursday night, Bryant walked out of the interview room and started down the corridor with his fitness savior. Grover slapped Bryant on the back and started walking with him. No words on the walk, no small talk. Just eyes ahead, just Game 2 now.
Soon, Bryant's bodyguards flank him and they're all walking into the night. There was no joy in victory, no joy in the best scoring night of his NBA Finals career. Yes, he felt so strong, so sure, and he generated such genius in Game 1. No Shaq to cramp his style, no Celtics to block his way, Kobe Bryant marched into the Los Angeles night with one down, three to go and hell to pay should someone step into his path.