By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 19, 2010; D02
LOS ANGELES -- For the first time in nearly a month, Kobe Bryant removed his surly mask of indifference and let down his guard. With his daughters, Natalia and Gianna, flanking him in shiny, white sequined dresses emblazoned with the Lakers logo, Bryant was finally free to say what he managed to keep pent up inside: As a Laker who grew up rooting for the Lakers, it was special to defeat the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals and claim a fifth championship ring. He even took a shot at his former teammate and longtime adversary.
"Just got one more than Shaq," Bryant said with a huge smile, as his older daughter Natalia chuckled after her father reacted to the truth serum created from an emotionally and physically challenging, 83-79 victory over the Celtics in Game 7 on Thursday. "You can take that to the bank. You know how I am. I don't forget anything."
The reason that Bryant could be so loose was that he was able to overcome a Celtics team that defends him better than any team in the league, with the assistance of teammates who likely will surround him through additional potential title runs. Bryant committed to a three-year extension to remain a Laker through 2014 months before his team repeated as NBA champions -- and nothing that occurred afterward would make him second-guess the decision.
Pau Gasol, the skilled all-star power forward, recovered nicely from his humiliating flop in his first Finals appearance against Boston in 2008. He scored 19 points with 18 rebounds in the series clincher, securing an offensive rebound on an errant Bryant jumper in the final minute and saving it back to Bryant, who drew a foul on Rasheed Wallace before making the decisive free throws.
"I can't say enough about the Spaniard," Bryant said. "That guy is unbelievable and just a hell of a player. We wouldn't have won it without him."
When Gasol arrived in a lopsided deal from Memphis two years ago, he hadn't experienced any postseason success, losing all 12 of his games. But he learned the physical nature of the Finals when matched against Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins. He got a semblance of revenge and showed how much he had grown in the final two minutes, when he made a hook over three Celtics and expressed his pleasure over turning the tide with a screeching howl.
Gasol was no newcomer to big game situations, having led Spain to a world championship in 2006. But after winning a championship against Orlando last season, Gasol not only proved himself as a worthy complement to Bryant but also delivered a legacy-defining performance of his own, carrying his team the final six minutes of the game, as he joined the pantheon of great Lakers big men with multiple rings. "It's incredible," said Gasol, who also signed a three-year extension to remain with the Lakers this season. "I mean, it's just like I'm living a different dimension. It's like really if I could get a genie and ask for a wish, this would be my wish as far as my basketball life and career."
Before Bryant and Gasol could lead the Lakers to the finish, they needed Ron Artest to provide some unexpected steady production. Artest spent most of this season hearing how the Lakers blundered in signing such a mercurial player rather than retaining Trevor Ariza, a central figure in the Lakers' championship run last season.
Artest saved the Lakers' season twice -- when he rebounded Bryant's air ball in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals against Phoenix and when he scored 20 points and shut down 2008 NBA Finals MVP Paul Pierce and collected five steals on Thursday. He played well enough to earn Bryant's trust on a pass for a crucial three-pointer with one minute left.
Artest has made his share of mistakes through his career, famously charging into the stands to punch a fan during the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Mich., in 2004. As he spoke after winning his first title, Artest was part humorous, part reflective and completely entertaining as he apologized to the Indiana Pacers because he "bailed out" on his former front office supporters and teammates. "I feel almost like a coward," he said. "I never thought God would put me in this situation again because of that."
But he could remain in that position for awhile. Derek Fisher is a free agent, but the Lakers could potentially find an upgrade at point guard this summer. Reserve forward Lamar Odom is also returning, with the team possibly bringing back a healthier Andrew Bynum -- and Bryant -- next season. Bryant reminded people that he was playing the entire season with a jagged index finger and a sore knee. "That's what drove me nuts and made this even sweeter was everybody kept talking about, 'He's old. He's old,' " Bryant, 31, said. "I was hurt."
Now that he has matched Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for most rings as a Laker, Bryant is now within one of Michael Jordan. "It's tough for me to really put that in any kind of context in terms of [Jordan] and I because 90 percent of what I've learned and what I've figured out comes from him," Bryant said. "So this is not a situation where it's me and Shaq rivalry kind of thing. It's not the same thing. It's different. It's more of a genuine love that I have for him and what he's done for me. It's completely different."
The Lakers' run is far from over, especially if Phil Jackson returns to attempt to complete at least a fourth three-peat of his career, having already recorded two with Jordan and Scottie Pippen and one with Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant. Jackson said he has "to take a deep breath" and will make a decision next week.
"He knows how bad I want him back," Bryant said. "I've been openly blunt about that and told him how much I want him back. Let's go for it again."