Kobe Bryant had finally won the regular season Most Valuable Player in 2008. However, anyone that knows anything about Kobe knew that wasn’t enough. Bryant is all about championships, and his Lakers had came up short against their rival, the Boston Celtics, during the 2007-08 season. Beyond that, Kobe had constantly heard the noise from everywhere about him not being able to lead his team to a title without Shaquille O’Neal. Kobe was no “Robin”, however, and he would prove that in 2009.
The Los Angeles Lakers would build off of their Finals appearance in 2008 to open up the new season on fire. With a 17-2 start, the Lakers tied their record for best opening in franchise history. They would eventually go 21-3 to begin the season. They would end the season at 65-17 which was the third highest win total in franchise history. They improved by eight wins over their 2008 total.
When the Lakers made it all the way to the 2008 NBA Finals without starting center, Andrew Bynum, they were seen as the favorites from the Western Conference to return there in 2009. Phil Jackson would make an adjustment in 2009 which seemed to improve the team even more than expected. Lamar Odom became their sixth man and helped propel the bench to new heights. Trevor Ariza also stepped up into the starting lineup and improved greatly. However, everyone knew who drove the Laker train. Kobe Bryant would have another incredible season averaging 26.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.4 steals per game. The addition of Pau Gasol in 2008, in a trade with Memphis, had been exactly what the Lakers needed and he had another solid year with 18.9 points, 9.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.0 block per game.
When you consider the Lakers still had to battle some injuries, their 65-17 record was even more impressive. Andrew Bynum would leave a game on January 31st against the Memphis Grizzlies with a right knee injury and was expected out 8-12 weeks. Phil Jackson, once again, adjusted his lineup and moved Gasol to center and started Lamar Odom at power forward. Kobe Bryant would raise his game to offset the missing Bynum with a 61-point performance on February 2nd, shooting 61% in a win against New York in Madison Square Garden. Bryant’s outburst set a record for most points ever in historic Madison Square Garden, breaking Bernard King’s record. The game was also the highest scoring performance by a player during the season.
The Lakers led the West all season, but were followed by Carmelo Anthony’s Denver Nuggets with 54 wins along with the 54 win San Antonio Spurs and the Portland Trail Blazers who also won 54 games. The Houston Rockets came in just behind all of those teams with a 53-29 record. In the East, it was the upstart Cleveland Cavaliers who were led by the newly crowned league MVP, LeBron James, who went 66-16 for the top seed. The Boston Celtics would finish second in the East with 62 wins, but had some tough injury news. Kevin Garnett would miss the playoffs and severely reduce their chances of getting back to the Finals. The Orlando Magic was the 3rd seed in the East with 59 wins, but would be about to shock the league led by the defensive player of the year in Dwight Howard.
The Orlando Magic would pull off two big upsets beating both Boston and the top seed, Cleveland, on their way to the Finals. The Lakers capped off a 65-win season as one of the favorites to win the title. They survived a seven-game series against the Houston Rockets and a six-game battle against Denver to meet Orlando in the Finals. As the Lakers got closer to the Finals, however, it became very apparent to all that they were more and more driven to win the championship.
Dwight Howard and the Magic simply were no match for the Lakers. While the Lakers were making their NBA record 30th Finals appearance, the Magic were entering only their second in franchise history (1995 was their first). The Lakers blew out Orlando in game #1 by 25 points. Game #2 was a tighter contest with Courtney Lee missing a game-winning lay-up, off an inbounds lob, at the end of regulation. Once the game hit overtime, the Lakers would take care of the Magic and take a 2-0 lead on their way to Orlando. In game #3, Orlando played like their backs were against the wall shooting 75% in the first half and 62.5% in the second half, both NBA Finals records. However, Orlando still only won the game by four points illustrating the Lakers dominance. Derek Fisher was the hero in game #4, hitting two key 3-pointers. He nailed one with 4.6 seconds left in regulation to tie the game and another in overtime with only 31.3 seconds remaining. The Lakers prevailed and won 99-91 to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. With a 99-86 win in game #5, the Los Angeles Lakers won their 15th overall championship and Kobe Bryant’s fourth title overall. It was also Phil Jackson’s 10th championship as a head coach.
The 2009 Los Angeles Lakers were driven without question. Driven by history, driven by destiny, and driven by players and coaches with the ultimate confidence that no one could beat them, the 2009 Lakers were one of the greatest. Kobe Bryant won the Finals Most Valuable Player, and it was the perfect combination of his leadership and drive that would just not let his team lose. Bryant also had the perfect team around him which is always the key to championships. Gasol, Fisher, Bynum, Ariza, Odom, along with bench players like Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar, all contributed at key times in the season. Then there was the Zin Master, Phil Jackson, who always seemed to pull the right strings, and only when those strings needed to be pulled. It was the perfect culmination to a Los Angeles title party that Kobe had been waiting on since 2002. Could Kobe win without Shaquille O’Neal? Bryant answered that question and added another chapter to his legacy in the process.