ORLANDO - Kobe Bryant has the NBA title he needed most - the one without Shaq.
Bryant's 7-year chase of a coveted championship is over. He has his fourth, and Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson his record 10th, a ring for each finger. One year after failing in the Finals, Bryant and the Lakers have redemption, and all the rewards that go with it.
They earned their 15th title last night as Bryant scored 30 points and Pau Gasol added 14 points and 15 rebounds in a 99-86 win in Game 5 over the Orlando Magic, who ran out of comebacks.
It took longer than Bryant expected, but he has stepped out of former teammate Shaquille O'Neal's enormous shadow - finally. His fourth championship secured, a strong case can be made for Bryant being the league's best player since Michael Jordan hung up his sneakers.
O'Neal, now with the Phoenix Suns, was glad to see Bryant win another title.
"Congratulations kobe, u deserve it," O'Neal said on his Twitter page. "You played great. Enjoy it my man enjoy it."
Bryant's coach stands alone.
Jackson, the chilled-out, bowlegged Zen master who won six league titles in the 1990s with Jordan in Chicago, now has won No. 4 with Los Angeles and broke a tie with legendary Boston coach Red Auerbach as the winningest coach in Finals history.
"I'll smoke the cigar tonight in memory of Red," Jackson said. "He was a great guy."
Bryant and Jackson, whose relationship strained and briefly snapped under the weight of success, are again at the top of their games. Together.
Nothing was going to stop Bryant, who spent the postseason scowling, snarling, baring his teeth and all but breathing fire at anything in his path. For weeks, the superstar has worn his game face, and only when the victory was his in the final seconds did the Finals MVP allow himself to smile.
After the final horn, he leaped into the air and was quickly engulfed by his teammates, who bounced around the floor of Amway Arena. Bryant then gave a long, heartfelt hug and shared a few words with Jackson before sweeping up his daughters, both wearing gold Lakers dresses, into his arms.
Bryant had come up short twice in the Finals before, in 2004 with O'Neal against Detroit, and again last season against the Celtics in the renewal of the league's best rivalry. The Lakers were beaten in six games, losing the finale in Boston by 39 points, a humiliating beatdown that Bryant and his teammates had trouble shaking.
"It's so tough to win championships," Bryant said. "We started over from scratch. Here we are again. This really feels like a dream."
After beating Utah in the first round, Los Angeles was forced to go seven games against Houston, which lost center Yao Ming to an injury. The Lakers then took care of Denver in six games, setting up a matchup with the shoot-from-their-hips Magic, who made their first visit to the Finals since O'Neal took them there in 1995.
Orlando will be haunted by moments in a series that swung on a few plays and had two overtime games. After losing Game 1 by 25 points, the Magic had their chance in Game 2 but rookie Courtney Lee missed an alley-oop layup in the final second of regulation. In Game 4, Dwight Howard clanged two free throws with 11.1 seconds left, and the Magic allowed Derek Fisher to nail a game-tying three-pointer to force OT.
Howard, the Magic's super-hero center, was hardly a factor in Game 5. He scored 11 points, took just nine shots and never got a chance to get going.
Afterward, he plopped down on the bench, pulled his jersey into his mouth and stared at Bryant and the rest of the celebrating Lakers. As teammates filed to the locker room slowly, Howard didn't budge. Finally, Jameer Nelson came back to give him some company on the bench.
"What I just told Jameer is look at it, just see how they're celebrating," Howard said. "And it should motivate us to want to get in the gym, want to get better, just to see those guys celebrating."
Howard and Nelson watched it all.
"I went over to give him a hug," Nelson said. "He just wanted me to stay there with him. He's taking it hard. We all are." *