LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant has waited a year, a long year, for another chance at NBA title. He’s not about to let this one slip away.
The Olympic gold medal was nice. Not nearly enough.
He covets another golden trophy.
“I just want it so bad, that’s all,” Bryant said. “I just want it really bad.”
Bryant, playing like a man possessed, scored 40 points and the Los Angeles Lakers, who have waited nearly one year for a chance to erase bitter memories of a Boston beatdown and a championship they felt belonged to them, pounded the Orlando Magic 100-75 in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night.
This year, nothing short of a 15th title will do for the Lakers.
And with the sensational Bryant out front, they may be on their way.
Game 2 is Sunday night at star-studded Staples Center, where actors Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio and rapper Kanye West had front-row seats to see another virtuoso performance by Bryant, who scored 18 points in the third quarter as the Lakers opened a 26-point lead and embarrassed the Magic.
The last time the Lakers were seen in the Finals, they were heading toward their locker room in Boston last June and summer break after being drubbed by 39 points in a series-ending Game 6 by the Celtics.
The renewed rivalry between the league’s superpowers never panned out.
Bryant and his teammates have used that humiliation to motivate them all season and throughout these playoffs.
The Magic, who went 2-0 against the Lakers in the regular season, appeared a touch overwhelmed in their first finals appearance since 1995. Not even the return of All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson from a four-month layoff following shoulder surgery could help the Eastern Conference champions.
Orlando center Dwight Howard was engulfed by two and three Lakers every time he touched the ball and scored 12 points – 10 on free throws – on just 1-of-6 shooting.
And the Magic’s outside shooters, so deadly while eliminating MVP LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference finals, were off the mark.
The Magic went just 8 of 23 on 3s and shot only 30 percent overall.
On the dry-erase board in Orlando’s locker room, coach Stan Van Gundy, in handwriting as neat as a schoolteacher’s, devoted two sections on how he wanted his team to defend Bryant.
The self-proclaimed “Black Mamba” slithered around Magic defenders with ease. Bryant scored an effortless 18 points in the first half and then took over in the third quarter, scoring 18 of L.A.’s 29 points with an assortment of jumpers, fadeaways and layups.
“He was great. He was tremendous,” said Van Gundy, who felt his team did a poor job defending the Lakers’ pick and roll. “We were giving him too much space on his pull-up jumpers and he did a good job of attacking us.
“I know this: We are a lot better than we showed.”