ONE STEP toward redemption, one step toward a ring.
Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers began the NBA finals with power and purpose.
Bryant, playing like a man possessed, scored 40 points and the Lakers, who have waited nearly 1 year for a chance to erase bitter memories of a Boston beatdown and a championship they felt belonged to them, pounded the visiting Orlando Magic, 100-75, in Game 1 last 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.
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.
They are on a mission.
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 4-month layoff following shoulder surgery could help the Eastern Conference champions.
He came off the bench and finished with six points and four assists in 23 minutes.
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.
"We did a good job on him, but he'll be ready to go Game 2," Bryant said. "We worked very hard on the perimeter, keeping those guys out of rhythm, then we did a good job on him inside - giving him different looks."
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-for-23 on threes and shot only 30 percent overall. They are facing some daunting odds, too.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson, seeking a record 10th title, is 43-0 in series in which his team wins Game 1.
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 LA'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."
On the eve of Game 1, Bryant said winning his first title since teammate Shaquille O'Neal was traded in 2004 was not that important to him. Bryant bristled at the notion that he wouldn't have any of his three titles - from 2000-02 - without Shaq as nonsense.
He says he wants No. 4 because it's the one in front of him.
And he's three wins from getting it.
* NBA commissioner David Stern says LeBron James has been fined $25,000 for skipping the postgame news conference after Cleveland lost to Orlando in the Eastern Conference finals.
* Chris Bosh doesn't plan to sign a contract extension with the Toronto Raptors this summer and is preparing to become a free agent at the end of next season.
* Indiana Pacers guard Mike Dunleavy had minor arthroscopic surgery on his left hip to clean up a long-standing injury.
* Dwyane Wade has sued a former business partner for $100 million, claiming the man maligned his reputation by making false allegations of illegal drug and steroid use in an e-mail to Miami Heat president Pat Riley. Wade's lawsuit accuses Richard von Houtman of libel and slander.
* Hornets reserve guard Devin Brown exercised a player's option in his contract to return to New Orleans for next season. *