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Friday, June 5, 2009

Kobe, Lakers looking for redemption in NBA Finals

LOS ANGELES (AP) After a humbling loss to Boston last year, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers will be seeking redemption — and a 15th title — when they face the resurrected Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals starting Thursday.

For Bryant, the NBA's greatest late-game closer since Michael Jordan, it's a second opportunity at shutting up some of his loudest detractors. He has won three titles, but hasn't been able to get No. 4 since Shaquille O'Neal was traded after the 2004 season to Miami.

Bryant was asked on Wednesday if he needed a post-Shaq championship to enhance his legacy.

"Not at all," Bryant said. "It means nothing. To me, it's about winning another one, just because I want to win another one."

Before catching his breath, Bryant, who had been loose and relaxed earlier this week, then took a verbal swipe worthy of a flagrant foul at O'Neal, his former teammate with whom he famously feuded.

"People think Shaq would have won a championship without me on that team," he said. "They're crazy."

This is Bryant's chance. He doesn't want to waste it.

And O'Neal, a 7-foot (213-cm) timeline connecting finals appearances by both teams, posted a message on his Twitter.com site saying he was backing Bryant.

"I am saying it today and today only," Shaq tweeted. "I want kobe bryant to get number four, spread da word."

From the moment Bryant dejectedly walked off the floor in Boston last June following L.A.'s 39-point loss in the title-deciding Game 6, he has been focused on a return. He helped restore U.S. basketball's world supremacy by leading the Americans to an Olympic gold medal in China last summer.

"My next goal is winning the NBA championship," he said. "We don't want to fall short of that."

Los Angeles would seem to have everything — history, experience, star power, coaching, A-list celebrities — over Orlando.

The Lakers have won 14 titles. Orlando has won none.

The Lakers have won 61 finals games. Orlando has won none.

Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson has nine championship rings. Orlando's Stan Van Gundy one — but he got it after stepping down as Miami's head coach early in the 2006 season and doesn't know where it is.

Yet the Magic, making their first appearance in the finals since O'Neal led Orlando there in 1995, won both regular-season matchups against the Lakers and are capable of an upset.

"They've beaten us three of the last four times," Bryant said. "So we're very, very concerned."

They should be.

Dwight Howard, the Magic's fun-loving "Superman" of a center, is the league's latest incarnation of Shaq. He can bend backboards, take over a game at both ends and crack up his teammates with a killer impersonation of the frumpy and grumpy Van Gundy.

In Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, Howard scored 40 points with 14 rebounds as Orlando finished off Cleveland and sawed the Kobe Bryant-LeBron James dream finals matchup in half.

On their way to the finals, the 3-point-happy Magic (they made 62 3s against the Cavaliers and are averaging 8.6 per game in the playoffs) have knocked off favored defending champion Boston, Cleveland and can now dispatch the Lakers.

That would be quite a trifecta. No team has ever beaten three 60-win teams in the same postseason.

"Superman" doesn't mind his role as underdog.

"We've always been overlooked," Howard said. "We were overlooked in the first series against Philly. We were overlooked against Boston. We were overlooked against the Cavaliers, and we're still overlooked. We don't want to be a team that everybody picks to win, because I think as a young team, once everybody starts saying, 'OK, you're this or you're that,' sometimes you tend to forget what got you there.

"Everybody picking against us motivates us. It drives us to do something greater."

LeBron has surgery

CLEVELAND (AP) Cavaliers star LeBron James has been released from the Cleveland Clinic after a five-hour procedure to remove a benign growth from his jaw a day earlier.

The team says James returned home Wednesday and is recovering well. He has had the condition for several months but opted to put off surgery until the Cavaliers completed their season.

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