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John Smallwood: Kobe's legacy at stake in NBA Finals

THE CHALLENGER has shifted from King James to Superman, but the task in front of Kobe Bryant remains the same.

THE CHALLENGER has shifted from King James to Superman, but the task in front of Kobe Bryant remains the same.

Fair or not, this is his legacy NBA Finals.

If Bryant can lead his Los Angeles Lakers past Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic, it will push him into the highest echelon of NBA superstardom.

A loss will perpetuate the thing that sticks in Bryant's craw more than anything else.

Kobe Bryant has won three NBA titles, but as so many of his critics readily point out, none came without future Hall of Fame center and former Tinseltown rival Shaquille O'Neal.

On one hand, this doesn't matter because even Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had consistent Hall of Fame-caliber help in winning their multiple championships.

In each case, one could say, "Yeah, but he never won without [insert name of NBA 50 Greatest Player here]."

The difference, however, is that there are never any questions as to who the alpha dog was on Jordan's Bulls, Magic's Lakers or Bird's Celtics.

No matter how talented the crew was, there is no doubt about who gets the credit for guiding the ship to the promised land.

It's different for Bryant.

He was "Robin" to O'Neal's "Batman," the little brother who contributed but still rode the coattails to his titles.

It didn't matter that until Dwyane Wade carried Shaq to a fourth championship with the Miami Heat, O'Neal had never won a title without Bryant. The steam engine that drove the Lakers to three straight NBA titles at the start of the century was clearly "The Diesel."

Much of that sentiment stems from O'Neal winning Most Valuable Player awards in each of those Finals, but some can be directly attributed to Bryant.

Bryant has left little doubt about his desire to take the Lakers to a championship without the hulking shadow of O'Neal hovering over him.

Since he won the "Battle for Los Angeles" and Shaq was shipped to Miami after the 2003-04 season, it's been Bryant's quest to win without the big fella and to silence the critics who say he cannot.

The opportunity was there last season, but Bryant's Lakers were taken down hard in six games by the Boston Celtics, led by Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.

The funny thing about sports is how opportunity can quickly turn into an albatross.

That's what Bryant faces again against the Magic.

Reaching consecutive NBA Finals is an amazing feat, but it becomes a tremendous burden if you don't win.

And as we saw when Orlando eased past LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals, the Magic is fully capable of hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy.

The problem for Orlando is that despite defeating Los Angeles in both meetings during the regular season, this is a good matchup for the Lakers.

Howard was unstoppable against Cleveland, but Lakers center Andrew Bynum, while not as strong as Howard, is just as quick. With help on defense, he should be able to slow down Howard.

Magic forward Hedo Turkoglu initiates a lot of offense; he can score and hit big shots. But Trevor Ariza is a tremendous one-on-one defender and has the quickness and length to contend with Turkoglu.

Lakers All-Star forward Pau Gasol seems determined to remove that "soft" label he acquired in last year's Finals. Rashard Lewis will expend a lot of energy containing Gasol, which could hurt his offensive production and three-point shooting.

The Lakers also have the best player off the bench in forward Lamar Odom, who can be as dominant as any player in the Finals, except Bryant and Howard.

If Magic All-Star Jameer Nelson, who is expected to be activated after missing the second half of the season following shoulder surgery, can contribute, it will increase the advantage Orlando already has at the point with Rafer Alston against an aging Derek Fisher.

The X-factor, of course, is Bryant, who is the best finisher on the planet.

Like in the Cleveland series when Orlando had no answer for James, the Magic will struggle to contain Bryant.

Courtney Lee and Mickael Pietrus were praised for their play against James, who still averaged more than 38 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in the series.

Bryant won't approach those numbers, but he won't have to.

Bryant trusts his teammates and displays a knack for knowing just what the Lakers need him to do and when they need him to do it.

This is Kobe Bryant's legacy Finals. He leads the Lakers to the title in six games. *

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