The Los Angeles Lakers dominated the early ‘00s, winning three straight NBA championships from 2000-02 behind Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. The playoff losses to the San Antonio Spurs in 2003 and the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals signaled the end of the era, as the band broke up and Shaq left for the Miami Heat. It wasn’t until the 2009 Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA title that Bryant’s vindication was complete.
Los Angeles went into the wilderness after Shaq left. The Lakers missed the playoffs in 2005 and were mediocre first-round losers in both 2006 and 2007. Meanwhile, Shaq won a title in Miami in 2006 with Dwayne Wade. In 2008, Bryant won the MVP award and it looked like the Lakers were ready to get back on top, but they lost the Finals as a favorite to the Boston Celtics.
Bryant didn’t win the MVP again in 2009, but he still averaged 27ppg. Pau Gasol averaged 19 points/7 rebounds. Lamar Odom and a 21-year-old Andrew Bynum didn’t have the greatest of reputations for their locker room presence, but they produced—11/8 for Odom and 14/8 for Bynum. Meanwhile, Derek Fisher did have the greatest of reputations for his locker room presence and the 34-year-old helped head coach Phil Jackson keep the ship running on course.
Los Angeles went 65-17 and had the top seed in the Western Conference. The first-round opponent in the playoffs was the Utah Jazz. To underscore the strength of the West, Utah’s 48 wins would have gotten them the #4 seed in the East, so this was a de facto second-round matchup in terms of quality. The Jazz had a good, young inside-out combo in Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams.
The Lakers had too much experience though, and they defended their home floor in the first two games. After Utah pulled out a two-point win Game 3, Los Angeles quickly restored order, won on the road in Game 4 and closed the series out at home in Game 5.
Up next was the Houston Rockets, with 53 wins to their credit and an imposing front line of Yao Ming, Luis Scola and Aaron Brooks. The Rockets had a defensive stopper in Ron Artest, who also showed in Game 1 what he could do on offense. Artest had a 21/7 night, Ming went for 28/10 and the Rockets stole a road win to open the series.
Los Angeles got back on track in Game 2 and then reclaimed control of the series in Game 3 in Houston. In spite of being badly outrebounded, the Lakers were lights-out from behind the arc. They hit 11/20 from three-point range, including 4-of-6 by Bryant. The 108-94 win put LA back in the driver’s seat.
What followed was a classic example of a good series that was really bad. It went the full seven games, so the average fan can’t complain too much. But the home team won each time and by a minimum of 12 points. There was drama in the big picture, but not in the games themselves. Which was fine by Los Angeles, as their wins in Game 5 & 7 at the Staples Center sent them to the Western Conference Finals.
The Denver Nuggets were the #2 seed in the West and had an explosive scorer in Carmelo Anthony. Melo was now in his sixth year in the league and coming into his own. He and Bryant staged a big-time scoring battle in Game 1, with Anthony getting 39 and Bryant going for 40. The difference? Gasol got 14 rebounds to key a Laker edge on the boards and they escaped 105-103.
Los Angeles wasn’t so fortunate in Game 2. Melo and Kobe continued their duel, with 34 each. But while Gasol got 17 boards, the Nuggets earned a draw on the glass. Chauncey Billups, the Denver guard who had tormented Los Angeles when he was with Detroit in 2004 did the same again. Billups had 27 and the Nuggets tied up the series, 106-103.
The NBA playoffs are a time for veterans and Bryant began to assert himself over Anthony when the series went to Denver. The Laker guard shot 12-for-24 in Game 3 and got 41 points. Anthony was held to 4-for-13 shooting. Los Angeles trailed by eight after three quarters, but owned the fourth period and won 103-97. Once again, they had used Game 3 on the road to restore homecourt advantage.
Denver won big in Game 4, but Los Angeles again used fourth-quarter dominance to win Game 5. Each of the first three quarters in Game 5 were played to a tie—not collectively, but individually. The dead heat was broken decisively in the fourth quarter, as the Lakers won 103-94, holding the Nuggets to 39 percent shooting.
Game 6 would seem to promise drama—a talented team playing at home can usually be counted on to push the favorite hard. But it didn’t happen here. Los Angeles played its best game of the series, perhaps of the entire postseason in the high altitude of the Rocky Mountains. Bryant shot 12-for-20, scored 35 points and dished 10 assists. Gasol went for 20/12, while Odom added 20/8. Trevor Ariza kicked in 17 off the bench. The Lakers controlled throughout and blew their way back into the Finals with a 119-92 win.
The 2009 NBA Finals were a little anti-climactic. It had been assumed that Los Angeles would either draw Boston or the Cleveland Cavaliers—the latter had the best record in the NBA and LeBron James had supplanted Kobe as league MVP. But the Orlando Magic had other ideas, taking out both teams en route to the Eastern Conference title.
Orlando was built around the immensely talented young center Dwight Howard, but the Magic were not championship-ready. The Lakers were ready to play Game 1 on their home floor, while the Magic were not—the game ended 100-75 and was never close. Los Angeles then showed their veteran savvy, making all the necessary plays down the stretch to win overtime games in Games 2 & 4.
The Magic had won Game 3, but the overarching pattern in these Finals is that the Los Angeles defense was doing a superb job of keeping Howard from getting his shot. After overwhelming the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Lakers didn’t let him get going offensively.
Meanwhile, Bryant was locked in. He averaged 32 points/6 rebounds/7 assists for the Finals, and after Los Angeles took Game 5 by a 99-86 count, his vindication was complete. No longer was Kobe someone who played second fiddle on championship teams. He was the undisputed leader of the 2009 Los Angeles Lakers as they reached the mountaintop.