Two teams battled through the 2009 Finals, providing three close games in five chances, but even with that attempt at parity, it's clear that the Los Angeles Lakers were just a giant step above the Orlando Magic.
The current Magic, mind you. Orlando fans will be for years ruing the absence of the Jameer Nelson(notes) that traipsed all over the Lakers twice during the regular season, leading the Magic to two close wins over the eventual champion, but the current Nelson (obviously injured, averaging about four points and three assists, making about a third of his shots from the floor) could not put the Magic over the top.
And while Kobe Bryant(notes) (30 points in the win, five assists, four blocks) was a deserved MVP, averaging 32.4 points and 7.4 assists per game alongside stout on-ball and help defense, this was truly a team effort.
Pau Gasol(notes) (14 points, 15 rebounds, four blocks) came out of nowhere to provide what was at times a dominant defensive effort, even if his work wasn't rewarded with eye-catching numbers or national TV plaudits. Derek Fisher's(notes) (13 points on seven shots) heroics in Game 4 have been well documented, Trevor Ariza(notes) (15 points, two steals) helped put the Magic away in Game 5, and Lamar Odom(notes) (17 points, 10 rebounds) was an all-around terror on both sides of the ball for each of the five games.
The Magic were a worthy opponent, and both of the team's losses in those close games could have gone their way but for an inch or two, but it's hard not to regard the Lakers as the better team by a good bound.
That said, it's hard not to appreciate just how far the Magic have come.
Nobody had this team as anything more than second or possibly third-round fodder entering the season, or even after the team raced out to place themselves amongst the elite of the East during the regular season. Nelson endured what was then classified a season-ending injury midway through the season, and though the Magic rallied around replacement point guard Rafer Alston(notes) (12 points on 15 shots in Game 5, three assists, three turnovers) to storm into the playoffs, the struggles didn't end there.
Orlando gave up home-court advantage in the first round against Philadelphia, then was forced to play without its best player in Dwight Howard(notes) (11 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks) after the All-Star center was suspended for Game 6 of that series for throwing an elbow at 76ers big man Samuel Dalembert(notes).
The team rallied to win that one on the road, before downing the defending champion Boston Celtics in a Game 7 in Boston, a remarkable accomplishment even if Kevin Garnett(notes) was stuck in street clothes on the Boston bench.
And though the Magic seemed to have their way with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the regular season, few even allowed the Magic a sixth or seventh game before the Cavaliers (owners of the NBA's best regular-season record) were to dismiss them. Instead, Orlando rolled, winning in six games, making the franchise's second appearance in the NBA Finals.
And though the close losses in Games 2 and 4 might sting, this ending was probably appropriate. The Magic worked, worked hard, but the Lakers were just that much better.
"I don't know," Stan Van Gundy said after the game, "if you can console anybody. It's very, very difficult."
Van Gundy seemed shocked, after the loss, by the swiftness of it all. At just two and a half hours, Game 5 was a quick one, especially compared to the two overtime games in this series.
"I'm not trying to be an ass," he warned, toward the end of his press conference. "Sometimes I do try to be an ass, but I'm not trying to be an ass -- I'm just not at the point of being able to reflect right now. I expected to be getting ready for Game 6 and getting on a plane to L.A."
His team, in the locker room, wasn't as shell-shocked. But even with no new game to play on Tuesday, or until October, the bounce-back effect that players seem to have following these losses that Van Gundy pointed out before the game seemed to have taken hold.
The Lakers, on the other hand, were loving life. You got the feeling that they knew how good they were, milling around the locker room, but without the perceived batch of arrogance that they were accused of during the first three rounds of the playoffs.
Instead, the champions seemed almost ready to play another series. Almost ready to take on another Finals, or another season, or the Magic in a best of nine. Confident, yes, but also appreciating the moment and what it represented.
For Kobe Bryant, a needed end to the nonsense about his supposed inability to win a championship on his own. As if that's ever happened in the history of team sports.
For Phil Jackson, a 10th Finals victory as a coach, and 12th overall (a fact few seem to bring up). Soon after the final buzzer, Jackson was handed a Lakers hat with a large "X" emblazoned on the front, a reference to his ten rings as a coach, a gift from his children and an idea fashioned by his agent, Todd Musberger.
For Pau Gasol, an end to the cries of "soft," a reputation partially earned, but a former trait of his game that hardly mitigated his overall brilliance. Gasol helped squash some of that chatter with a strong performance on a Christmas Day game against the Celtics this season, but to those who were paying attention, his defensive work on Dwight Howard in this series was an all-timer.
For Derek Fisher, a logical end to a five-year run that few could have predicted. Fisher fled a sinking Lakers ship in 2004, just as Shaquille O'Neal(notes) was demanding a trade, with Phil Jackson already gone, and Kobe Bryant flirting as a free agent with both the Clippers and the Chicago Bulls.
Signed to an outrageous contract with the Golden State Warriors, Fisher was then traded to the Utah Jazz, watched as his daughter Tatum was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, willingly voided the final years of that outrageous contract in order to move to a city that could provide better care for his daughter, and then signed for less money with the Lakers in the summer of 2007.
For Andrew Bynum(notes), an end to the embarrassment. He probably came back too early after tearing his MCL, and now he has until the fall to rehabilitate, with nobody referring to him as anything but a champion.
For Trevor Ariza and Lamar Odom, they hope, enough good memories to force Los Angeles' hand in paying the luxury tax and keeping their pair of dynamic free agent forwards in the fold.
For Luke Walton(notes), it means he's halfway to his father's mark of two NBA championships. And, hopefully, it also means a six-pack or two for Walton, who was milling around the press area following the game, wondering if the media was given free beer, and if they had any to share. No, Luke. And even if we did ... no.
For Los Angeles, the city's first championship in seven years, and the franchise's 15th overall. Here's hoping we don't wake to any news of nonsense coming out of the L.A. area as a result.
The game itself seemed Los Angeles' all along.
The Magic roared out to an early, slim lead, but an inability to hit three-pointers or keep the Lakers off the offensive glass kept Los Angeles close. By the second quarter, Trevor Ariza's defense on Hedo Turkoglu(notes) (both on ball, and in causing turnovers) and 12 points allowed the Lakers to pull away.
The Magic had their chances to whittle away at the Laker lead, but the Los Angeles defense was too strong, and Orlando frittered away too many offensive chances (missed free throws, missed open shots, all sorts of misses in the paint) to make a real run at the eventual champs.
Though Orlando nearly got it down to single digits in the final minutes, it was never that close. The Lakers' defense was too much, and the Magic were out of offensive answers.
In all, a satisfying Finals. The likely storyline from here on out will probably have to do with this being one of the more closely-contested 4-1 Finals series' anyone can remember. The pundits wouldn't be wrong in that sentiment, but they'd also be doing the champions a disservice by not regarding them as a clear step above.
We'll have more on this contest, Behind the Box Score-style, early on Monday morning.