Who but Kobe Bryant could have been the first recipient of the newly-named Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award after the Lakers handily defeated the Orlando Magic 99-86 to cap a 4-1 series victory?
While his numbers told the story just fine – Bryant averaged team-high 32.4 points and 7.4 assists, plus 5.6 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks on 45.7 percent shooting in five games – it was No. 24′s ability to lead his team both physically and mentally that stood out most impressively.
The title was the fourth of Bryant’s career, but he had yet to earn Finals MVP accolades, which went to Shaquille O’Neal in L.A.’s 2000-2002 three-peat. That Bryant was the clear lead dog in the 2009 race, and that his teammates so heartily bought into his mission put the accomplishment at the “top of the list,” in his words.
After the game, a joyous Bryant addressed a slew of reporters; Here’s the quote transcription:
LAKERS GUARD KOBE BRYANT:
Q. As you well know, Phil Jackson now, 10 championships, most in history. What is it that makes him such a great coach in your opinion?
KOBE BRYANT: I think it’s his ability to bring people together. That’s the biggest thing that he does so well is he continues to coach the group, continues to coach unity and chemistry and togetherness, and that’s the biggest thing, because when you’re together, you can with stand adversity. If you’re not, you can easily break apart and become a team of individuals. That’s his biggest characteristic of what he does well.
Q. Can you talk about the impact that Pau has had on this team in the 17 months he’s been with you guys?
KOBE BRYANT: Pau is I think the thing that helped us get to this level was the improvements that he made defensively. He did a terrific job defensively for us all year, and particularly in this series. Offensively his capabilities are limitless. He’s a dominant post up player, extremely versatile, makes great decisions, and obviously when we got him last year, that really took us to that next step.
Q. How is this different from your previous three rings?
KOBE BRYANT: Well, I just don’t have to hear that criticism, that idiotic criticism anymore. That’s the biggest thing. I don’t have to hear that stuff anymore. For us with the collection of guys that are so young and having gone through what we went through last year and having the goal in mind of trying to get back to this point, and to have the attitude of we’re going to become a better defensive team, better rebounding team, and then to actually do it and to see it all happen, it feels like I’m dreaming right now. I can’t believe this moment is here.
Q. You hit that three, put you up 83 67, they called time out, you went to the bench and paused. Was that the moment it hit you it was within your grasp?
KOBE BRYANT: Yeah, that was the shot that I was measuring the whole time. I knew I had to knock it down because they were starting to surge. I could feel it. It was a 13 point game and I could feel a surge coming. That shot, I knew if I was able to knock it down it would deflate them a little bit and buy us another minute, and that’s why I did that.
Q. What did it feel like when you finally realized the moment was at hand?
KOBE BRYANT: It felt like a big old monkey was off my back. It felt so good to be able to have this moment. We tried not to envision it too much, you know what I mean, because you just get too excited. You try not to think about it, just think about playing the game, and for this moment to be here and to reflect back on the season and everything that you’ve been through, it’s top of the list, man.
Q. Dwight is back there pretty disappointed. What do you think are his chances of getting back here and winning it? And also, what do you know about how hard that’s going to be?
KOBE BRYANT: It’s tough to get back. They’re going to have a bull’s eye on their back, obviously. This is a good experience for them. They have a very tough team, extremely well coached, and I have no doubt they’ll be contending again.
Q. And Dwight specifically, what did you think of how he played?
KOBE BRYANT: What did he average, 17 points, 17 rebounds, five blocked shots? Those are just ridiculous numbers.
He’s just a phenomenal player.
Q. One of the things that got said after Shaquille left was that you guys left championships on the table, and I think both of you said that you had regrets about it. What do you see ahead for this team?
KOBE BRYANT: Just vacation (smiling). Cabo. Yeah, stuff like that. When next season comes around, we’ll go from there. We’ll be ready to work again, that’s for sure.
Q. When Phil was in, he said when he came back, he wasn’t anticipating winning a championship. Did he ever say that to you?
KOBE BRYANT: No (laughing). What are you, crazy?
Phil, he always stays in the moment, so the fact that he does that doesn’t surprise me because he only coaches the moment. Whatever comes out of that comes out of that, but he continued to push us, continued to challenge us, and here we are.
Q. The criticism about you having not won a championship without Shaq, did you ever look at it like Magic and Worthy in the ’80s, that nobody ever helped those guys, that they played with great talent? Was that kind of a source of frustration for you?
KOBE BRYANT: Yeah, it was just silly. Every team has a dynamic duo. I think it’s a shame. But it is what it is. I wasn’t going to try to argue about it. I mean, that does nothing. So you just accept the challenge and try to prove them wrong.
Q. In the second quarter last year in Boston where no one gets anything going, tonight in the second quarter everyone has it going. What does it feel like for you out there and you saw that Trevor was hitting his shot tonight and Lamar was getting to the basket?
KOBE BRYANT: Actually I’ve become more aware, conscious of what we’re doing defensively at that point, because once we get everything going offensively, you can easily start thinking you can score anytime you want to. That’s something I kept harping on through that stretch is to stay in tune with their runners, stay in tune with their shooters, with their scorers, get back on defense and keep pressuring them defensively. You start scoring, you think you can score and score and score and score and your defense slips, and this team, they’ll bust you if you do that. I just tried to stay the course with the guys.
Q. A couple years ago you weren’t satisfied with your help at all. When did you become convinced that this was a team you could win with?
KOBE BRYANT: Got a new point guard, got a new wing, got a Spaniard, and then it was all good. It was all good. I had a bunch of Christmas presents that came early.
Q. This probably is an unfair question because you’re in the moment, because do you think that you’re going to walk out of this room or next week or the week after that and see yourself any different, or people see you different?
KOBE BRYANT: Well, they won’t see us as losers. LA is brutal, man. Now when I go to Disney World and Disneyland, I can enjoy the moment. I don’t have to answer questions about what the hell happened to you guys? You know what I mean? From that standpoint, the summer is much more enjoyable.
Q. Can I ask you for your perspective on Phil? His first title came against the Lakers 4 1. His 10th came as part of the Lakers 4 1. Did you put some dimensional aspects into what this accomplishment means, not only for the team and the organization, but how Phil might be actually thinking? We were talking about him earlier. Of course he’s not that open with his feelings.
KOBE BRYANT: He’s very excited about it, absolutely. Extremely excited about it. You can tell. You can see it in his eyes how ecstatic he is. It’s been a long time since he had a champagne bath, and I knew that, so I made sure he became part of our circle and we got him pretty good. He took his glasses off, threw his head back and soaked it all in because this is a special time, and for us to be the team that got him that historic 10th championship is special for us.
Q. Focus was a word he used to describe you often in these playoffs. Was there a difference between your focus this year and last year? And if so, why the difference?
KOBE BRYANT: Well, I was just locked in, just completely locked in. I think it’s a matter of understanding the moment. It’s also understanding your team and the lead that they have to follow. That’s what I tried to do. I was grumpy for a while, and now I’m just ecstatic, like a kid in a candy store.
Q. I know you danced around the Shaq question. There have been teams in history that break up, Martin and Lewis broke up. They wondered could each of them succeed on their own, and they did. Could you focus on the fact that this was a great duo, it did break up, now you’ve succeeded on your own. Not to knock Shaquille, but what does it mean to do it without him and do it on your own with your teammates?
KOBE BRYANT: From the standpoint of responding to the challenge, from people saying I couldn’t do it without him, that feels good, because you prove people wrong. So from that standpoint it feels extremely good to do that. On another note, I think people can look at the special teams that we had together. We’re great as individuals, but then you look at these two teams it’s probably the first dynamic duo that had two alpha males on one team. We managed to make it work for three championships. For me it’s about the years that we had but also enjoying the ones to come.
Q. Did it bother you year after year, the cliché, can he win it without Shaquille?
KOBE BRYANT: It was annoying. It was like Chinese water torture, just keep dropping a drop of water on your temple. It was just annoying. I would cringe every time. I was just like, it’s a challenge I’m just going to have to accept because there’s no way I’m going to argue it. You can say it until you’re blue in the face and rationalize it until you’re blue in the face, but it’s not going anywhere until you do something about it. I think we as a team answered the call because they understood the challenge that I had, and we all embraced it.