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Lakers return to finals to face the Magic

LOS ANGELES, June 3 – Los Angeles and Orlando take centre stage Thursday, with Lakers star Kobe Bryant trying to prove he can win a National Basketball Association title without Shaquille O'Neal and the Magic going for the first championship in franchise history.

KOBE_BRYANTThe two NBA conference champions have faced plenty of adversity this season to get to the best-of-seven NBA finals showdown.

The Lakers haven’t won a title since 2002 behind dominant centre and self-proclaimed "Superman" O’Neal.

In Orlando they’ll face a team with its own "Superman" in Dwight Howard.

"If we go hard for 48 minutes every game at the end of the finals we should have a ring. We should have a trophy," said Howard.

Howard complained early in the playoffs to coach Stan Van Gundy about not getting the ball enough, then capped his semi-final series with a career playoff high 40-point performance in a 103-90 clinching victory win over Cleveland.

The Lakers have 2008 MVP Bryant and are deeper in talent than the they were when they lost in six games to the Boston Celtics last year.

But Orlando quashed any hopes of a repeat finals between the Celtics and Lakers by beating defending champion Boston in the quarter-finals.

They then ended dreams of a LeBron James versus Bryant showdown by stunning the James’s No. 1 seed Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference championships.

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"It is an unbelievable feeling," Magic forward Rashard Lewis said. "We put a lot of hard work in since September.

"A lot of guys came in early before training camp, worked our butts off and we had a great season.

"But we feel like we still have work to go out there and do and try to go out there and win it all. Getting to the finals is not exactly enough for us."

This is the Magic’s first trip to the NBA finals since 1995 – when they were led by a young O’Neal before he was signed as a free agent with the Lakers.

It is the 30th trip to the finals for the storied Laker franchise, which is seeking its 15th NBA championship. The Lakers’ 2002 title was the last of three straight championships.

"Now we are in a place where we didn’t get the job accomplished last year," Bryant said. "Hopefully we will this time."

After beating Denver in six games in the semi-finals, the Lakers will have had five days off to rest and get ready.

The Magic won both regular season games between the two but they needed late three pointers in each game to do it.

Orlando beat the Lakers 106-103 at home in December and 109-103 a month later at Staples Center.
Jameer Nelson was a standout in both those games, scoring 28 points in the January win and 27 at home at Amway arena.

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But Nelson underwent surgery for a torn labrum in his right shoulder and has missed the entire playoffs so far. He is scheduled to practise this week but it is not known whether he will be healthy enough to play.

The Lakers have had injury problems of their own as forward Lamar Odom has been playing with an extra piece of padding to protect a sore back.

It is doubtful that Odom’s breakfast of champions (a fondness for candy) prevents him from maintaining his focus for every game, but he won’t be 100 percent and he will have his hands full guarding Lewis.

Another key matchup will pit Bryant against the Magic’s defensive specialist Mickael Pietrus, of France.

Bryant comes into the finals averaging 29.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists in the post-season.

The 27-year-old Pietrus, who was born in Guadeloupe, warmed up for Bryant by holding off James in the Eastern Conference finals, and it will be his job to force Bryant into taking high risk shots.

At centre, the Magic have a big edge in Howard versus Andrew Bynum. Howard has averaged 21.7 points and 15.4 rebounds in the playoffs after winning the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award and leading the league in rebounds and blocked shots in the regular season.

If Laker coach Phil Jackson starts his rising young star, Bynum is going to need a double team and plenty of help from his teammates to contain Howard.

Jackson is looking for his 10th title as a coach and 12th overall. When his teams win the opening game of a playoff series he has a 43-0 record.

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The rotund Magic coach Van Gundy may be the guy people like to poke fun at, but his coaching record is no laughing matter as his team is 5-1 in their last six games. He has taken some heat recently from Howard but he has proved to be an excellent motivator.

"I just think this team all year long has shown an incredible amount of heart," Van Gundy said. "This team just keeps fighting back."

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