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Bryant steps out of Shaq's shadow

LOS ANGELES, December 22 – One year after losing in the finals to Boston, the Los Angeles Lakers scratched and clawed their way back to the NBA summit as a determined Kobe Bryant willed them to their 15th title.This was a year the Lakers were not going to be denied, not even by the Orlando Magic’s smothering defence led by their rising star Dwight Howard.

The Lakers were on a mission and no one wanted it more than Bryant who showed a killer instinct that earned him the most valuable player award.

The Lakers captured their first title in seven years but almost as important for Bryant and coach Phil Jackson, the win allowed them to escape from under some colossal shadows.

Bryant captured his fourth championship ring and first without Shaquille O’Neal, who was named finals MVP all three times he and Bryant won the title as Laker teammates.

Jackson collected his 10th championship ring to surpass legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach for the most titles by an NBA head coach.

"Some of the stuff is almost incomprehensible," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said of Jackson. "The guy has won 51 playoff series. Check your record book and see how many coaches have ever won 50 playoff games. His record is undeniable."

Bryant got tired of hearing that he couldn’t win without O’Neal. He said after clinching the title that the comments were like the tick, tick, tick of having drops of water fall on your head.

"It was like Chinese water torture," Bryant said. "Just keep dropping a drop of water on your temple. I don’t have to hear that idiotic criticism anymore. I proved people wrong."

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Los Angeles ended the series the same way they started it — with a dominating victory. They won game two and four in overtime, holding the Magic to just 75 points in game one and 29.9 percent shooting from the field.

In game five the Magic jumped out to a nine-point lead in the first quarter then allowed the Lakers to get back into it with a 16-0 run in the second.

The loss will haunt the Magic but make them hungrier to get back and finish the job in 2009-10.

The memories are still painful for Howard who forced himself to stay on the floor at Amway Arena and watch the Lakers celebration rather than retreat to the dressing room.

"I told Jameer (Nelson) ‘look at it, just see how they are celebrating’. It should motivate us to want to get into the gym and get better.

"We were three games away from having an NBA title. Next year we are going to be hungrier to be champions."

One of those teams the Magic had to beat to get to the finals was LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers

They were a heavy underdog going into the series but they ended up carving up the Cavalier defence, winning game six in a rout.

You can bet that left James with a sour taste in his mouth especially so soon after being named the league’s most valuable player in the regular season.

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It was supposed to be a close MVP vote but James won in a landslide, taking 109 of a possible 121 first-place votes. Of course Bryant, who won the year before, got the last laugh in the post-season.

James became the seventh player since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976 to earn rookie of the year and MVP honors in a career.

When it comes to MVPs, neither Bryant or James are in a class with Michael Jordan. At least not yet.

So it was no surprise that Jordan was voted into the basketball hall-of-fame in 2009, but what did come as a shock was the way he chose to focus on petty grievances and past slights in his acceptance speech in September.

A time usually reserved for praise and credit, Jordan ripped former teammates, coaches and roommates.

The Cleveland Cavaliers executed a blockbuster trade in June, acquiring Shaquille O’Neal from the Phoenix Suns in hopes he could help James deliver a championship to the seemingly sports-cursed Ohio city.

Cleveland shipped centre Ben Wallace and swingman Sasha Pavlovic to the Suns, along with a second-round pick in the 2010 draft and 500,000 dollars in cash for the giant 7-foot-1 centre O’Neal.

Many thought it was a steep price to pay for O’Neal who is not the same player he was when he won three straight titles from 2000 to 2002 with Bryant and the Lakers.

It was a summer of discontent for China’s Yao Ming who learned he will have to sit out the entire Houston Rockets’ 2009-10 season after having surgery to repair a broken foot.

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The Rockets star underwent the operation in July which involved grafting bone and realigning his foot.

The injury was discovered during the Rockets quarter-final playoff series loss to the Lakers last season.

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