RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Once again, the Los Angeles Lakers are champions of the NBA. Their 99-86 clinching victory over the Orlando Magic last night earned the team its first title since 2002 and its 15th overall. It earned Kobe Bryant new respect as a leading man and put coach Phil Jackson in a league of his own. NPR's sport correspondent Tom Goldman joins us to talk about all of this.
TOM GOLDMAN: Hi, Renee.
MONTAGNE: And it's, as I've just said, it's been seven years since the Lakers won a championship. The last time they won Shaquille O'Neal was on the team. But last night, it was Kobe Bryant out there on his own.
GOLDMAN: Yeah, it was, you know. And he's been dogged for those seven years by criticism that he couldn't win a title without Shaquille O'Neal, especially after O'Neal was traded to Miami and won a title there.
Last night, he said, laughing, how happy he was that - in his words - he didn't have to hear that idiotic criticism anymore.
Mr. KOBE BRYANT (NBA player, Los Angeles Lakers): It's just annoying. Every time I hear it it was just annoying. I would cringe every time. And, you know, I was just like this is a challenge I'm just going to have to accept, because there's no way I'm going to argue it.
You can say, say it 'til you're blue in the face, and rationalize it 'til you're blue in the face, but it's not going anywhere until you eventually do something about it. And I think we as a team answered the call, you know, because they understood the challenge that I had and we all embraced it.
GOLDMAN: And, you know, Renee, I think what was even more gratifying for Kobe Bryant was the way the team realized the goals that they set after losing to Boston in last year's finals. After getting pushed around by the Celtics, the Lakers vowed to become a better defensive team and a better rebounding team. And they did.
MONTAGNE: And though, Tom, despite the 99-86 Lakers victory, the Orlando Magic did fight hard. They took a couple of games into overtime. What was the key in this match up?
GOLDMAN: Well, you know, even though they had Bryant, the Lakers were a more balanced team. And they had big contributions last night from players like Trevor Ariza and Lamar Odom. And basically the Lakers don't win this title without their big man Pau Gasol.
A big key was the Lakers' defense, especially the way they covered Orlando center Dwight Howard throughout the series. He really wasn't a factor at all, last night when they needed him most. That said, Orlando didn't play up to its potential. The Magic didn't shoot well and Orlando relies a lot on outside shooting.
And then the Magic blew some golden opportunities. The lob pass and near game-winning lay up that Courtney Lee banked too hard off the backboard in game two. And then Dwight Howard's two missed free throws at the end of regulation that would've clinched game four.
MONTAGNE: And Tom, for Phil Jackson it was the 10th NBA championship. He's now shot past legendary Boston coach Red Auerbach as the winning-est coach in finals history. I gather last night, he said, he'd - he, Phil Jackson, would -what - smoke a cigar for Red or something like that.
MONTAGNE: I mean, he does respect him. But what makes Jackson such a great coach?
GOLDMAN: Well, you know, Kobe Bryant, I think, said it best. Kobe said Phil Jackson's ability to bring people together. He continues to coach unity, chemistry and togetherness. And, you know, that's no small task when you consider the egos that he has dealt with. Michael Jordon for six titles, Kobe and Shaq for three, and then Kobe alone for one.
These guys aren't just basketball players, they're rock stars, and Jackson has had to manage them and integrate them into a group of teammates with lesser abilities and stature. It's unfair to say anyone could've won championships with those players. It's not true. It was Jackson's art that he could do it.
MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.
GOLDMAN: You're welcome.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Tom Goldman.
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