LOS ANGELES – His smile has vanished, replaced by something closer to a scowl. His days of joking around are seemingly on hold.
Kobe Bryant has become deadly serious.
He has that look, you’ve seen the one. It’s the cold-blooded, get-out-of-my-way-or-pay glare he’ll shoot at a teammate who messes up or an opponent who dares to try and stop him.
The Black Mamba is poised to strike.
The NBA Finals are in his sights.
After a humbling loss to the Boston Celtics in last year’s finals, Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers will be seeking atonement – and a 15th championship – when they face the resurrected Orlando Magic in Game 1 tonight at the Staples Center.
For Bryant, the game’s greatest late-game closer since Michael Jordan, it’s a second opportunity at shutting up some of his loudest detractors. He has won three titles, but hasn’t been able to get No. 4 since Shaquille O’Neal was traded after the 2004 season to Miami.
Bryant was asked Wednesday if he needed a post-Shaq championship to enhance his legacy.
“Not at all,” Bryant said. “It means nothing. To me, it’s about winning another one, just because I want to win another one.”
Before catching his breath, Bryant, who had been loose and relaxed earlier this week, then took a verbal swipe worthy of a flagrant foul at O’Neal, his former teammate with whom he famously feuded.
“People think Shaq would have won a championship without me on that team,” he said. “They’re crazy.”
This is Bryant’s chance. He doesn’t want to waste it.
And O’Neal, a 7-foot timeline connecting finals appearances by both franchises, posted a message on his Twitter.com site saying he was pulling for Bryant.
“I am saying it today and today only,” Shaq tweeted. “I want Kobe Bryant to get number four, spread da word.”
From the moment Bryant dejectedly walked off the floor in Boston last June following L.A.’s 39-point loss in Game 6, he has been focused on a return. He helped restore U.S. basketball’s world supremacy by leading the Americans to an Olympic gold medal in China last summer.
That was the Redeem Team. He’s on another one.
“My next goal is winning the NBA championship,” he said. “We don’t want to fall short of that.”
Los Angeles would seem to have everything – history, experience, star power, coaching, A-List celebrities – over Orlando.
The Lakers have won 14 titles. Orlando, 0.
The Lakers have won 61 finals games. Orlando, 0.
Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson has nine championship rings. Orlando’s Stan Van Gundy 1 – but he got it as an assistant and doesn’t know where it is.
Yet the Magic, making their first appearance in the finals since 1995, won both regular-season matchups against the Lakers and are capable of an upset.
“They’ve beaten us three of the last four times,” Bryant said. “So we’re very, very concerned.”
They should be.
Dwight Howard, Orlando’s fun-loving Superman of a center, is the league’s latest incarnation of Shaq. He can bend backboards, take over a game at both ends and crack up his teammates with a killer impersonation of the frumpy and grumpy Van Gundy.
In Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, Howard scored 40 points with 14 rebounds as the Magic finished off Cleveland and sawed the Kobe Bryant-LeBron James dream finals matchup in half.
On their way to the finals, the 3-point-happy Magic (they made 62 3s against the Cavs and are averaging 8.6 per game in the postseason) have knocked off the favored Celtics, Cavaliers and can now dispatch the Lakers.
That would be quite a trifecta. No team has beaten three 60-win teams in the same postseason.
Superman doesn’t mind his role as Underdog.
“We’ve always been overlooked,” Howard said. “We were overlooked in the first series against Philly. We were overlooked against Boston. We were overlooked against the Cavs, and we’re still overlooked. We don’t want to be a team that everybody picks to win, because I think as a young team, once everybody starts saying, ‘OK, you’re this or you’re that,’ sometimes you tend to forget what got you there.
“Everybody picking against us motivates us. It drives us to do something greater.”
The Magic’s season seemed doomed when All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson went down with a shoulder injury in February. The team survived the adversity and may get a recovered Nelson back for the finals.
Van Gundy was still weighing whether to play Nelson, who averaged 27.5 points in the two wins over Los Angeles. He isn’t worried about Nelson disrupting Orlando’s chemistry, and Van Gundy is not convinced his return would provide any goose bumps.
“It’s not like he hasn’t played with our guys,” Van Gundy said, “and I don’t really think our guys need an emotional boost. I don’t think it’s going to be a Willis Reed moment or anything.”
The overriding theme during the Lakers’ postpractice availability on Wednesday was how last season’s finals lessons will help them this time. A year ago, many of Los Angeles’ young players got swept up and overrun by the mammoth media attention.
The images of Boston coach Doc Rivers bathing in Gatorade, Kevin Garnett kissing Boston’s midcourt leprechaun logo and Paul Pierce hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy have stuck with them.
The Lakers want to make them go away.
“We’re upset about losing in the finals,” forward Pau Gasol said. “We should have given it a better shot than we did. It didn’t happen, and now we’re here again and we can give it a much better shot and really get it done.”