PHOENIX – Kobe Bryant(notes) walked out of the hallway and into the swell, and all around, they flocked to him. Kids wanted autographs. Their parents wanted pictures. Steve Nash(notes), cradling his daughter, came over to offer congratulations. Bryant signed and posed, and, finally, he was free. With the Los Angeles Lakers' bus idling nearby, waiting to ferry him to his next grudge match, Bryant gave a farewell salute.
One score settled, one more to come.
Bryant dismissed the Phoenix Suns from the Western Conference finals, erasing the stain of two embarrassing, lost seasons, and now comes his toughest test yet. He must do what is expected of all great Lakers. He must beat the Boston Celtics.
Bryant says he didn't care who the Lakers met in the NBA Finals, and no one believes him. Two years ago, the Celtics denied Bryant his first championship without Shaq. They embarrassed the Lakers, closing the series with a 39-point rout, and afterward Bryant sequestered himself and a few team officials in a back room of Boston's Garden. For nearly an hour, Bryant simmered as the Celtics whooped and celebrated directly across the hall.
Once Bryant finally emerged, he found Celtics forward Brian Scalabrine(notes) hoisting the championship trophy. Bryant stopped to shake Scalabrine's hand, but there was no hiding the contempt on his face: This player – this Celtics' role player – held what Bryant wanted.
"He's the ultimate competitor," Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw said. "Anytime he doesn't accomplish a goal he sets out to accomplish, he takes it harder than anybody.
"To get that close and then to go out the way we went out … that's what fueled him."
Beating the Orlando Magic for last season's championship helped validate Bryant, but it didn't erase the memories of two years ago. More than any team over the past decade, the Celtics made Bryant look mortal in the 2008 Finals. Everywhere Bryant went on the court, a crowd waited. He shot barely 40 percent over the six games and concluded the series with a 7-of-22 performance. He didn't trust his teammates enough, and they didn't give him much reason to do so.
Ron Artest(notes) was in Boston for that game, and he walked into the Lakers' locker room afterward, surprising everyone. His message to Bryant: I can help you. Artest saw what everyone saw: The Lakers' frontline wilted under the Celtics' physicality.
Andrew Bynum(notes) missed the '08 Finals with a knee injury and, even in his current limited state, should now help the Lakers counter better. So should Artest, who likely will take on the assignment of defending Paul Pierce(notes), a task that often fell to Bryant.
"There aren't many people who can guard him," Artest said. "I'm probably one of the few people who has a chance."
Artest also was struck by something else he saw that night in Boston two years ago. Never had Bryant looked more frustrated. For Kobe there is only one true standard for greatness: titles won. Once again, he had fallen short.
Bryant now enters these Finals seeking his fifth championship, which would tie him with Magic Johnson. Two of Johnson's titles came against the Celtics. No matter how much Bryant tries to downplay the significance of the opponent, deep down, he realizes what beating Boston would do for his own legacy. The game's greats have distinguished themselves in the league's most storied rivalry. Now it's his turn.
"The challenge is to win the championship," he said. "The Celtics are in the way."
This is payback for Kobe, and no one does revenge quite like him. The Suns know this as well as anyone. They knocked Bryant from the playoffs in 2006 and '07 then felt his wrath in the West finals. Bryant averaged nearly 34 points while shooting 52 percent in what stands as one of his greatest series ever. He instilled some urgency into the Lakers after they flat-lined in Game 4, then closed out the Suns in Game 6 with a display of shot-making unrivaled in these playoffs.
Twenty-four of Bryant's points on Saturday came in the second half. After the Suns closed within three late in the fourth quarter, he spun away from both Grant Hill(notes) and Channing Frye(notes) and hit a tough fading shot. With Hill again draped over him a minute later, Bryant pump-faked once then rose and buried one more stunning dagger.
"Good defense," Suns coach Alvin Gentry told Hill.
"Not quite good enough," Bryant fired back. He grinned and swatted Gentry on his rear. There would be no stopping him on this night.
"Right now he's the best player in basketball," Gentry said. "And it's not even close."
Bryant hasn't lacked for fuel to burn in these playoffs. Someone suggested Kevin Durant(notes) had already surpassed his greatness. LeBron James(notes) failed to make good on another MVP season. The Suns had twice beaten him in the playoffs.
Now here come the Celtics. Bryant can say he doesn't give a damn who he plays, but everyone knows otherwise. This is different.
This is payback, and rarely does Kobe leave his scores unsettled.