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Kobe Bryant sinks his teeth into the Magic in Game 1

His 40-point, eight-rebound, eight-assist effort leads Lakers to a dominating win.

June 05, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

Enough about his tumbling jumpers, his tentacle defense, his towering rebounds, his touch passing.

Did you see his teeth?

The story of the NBA Finals opener Thursday could be found in Kobe Bryant's mouth.

Seriously, did you see his teeth?

During the Lakers' 100-75 victory over the Orlando Magic, Bryant openly ground them as he ground his way to 40 points.

He visibly clenched them as he fought for eight rebounds and flicked out eight assists.

He bared them as he bared his soul.

"I just want it so bad," he said quietly. "I just want it really bad."

If, indeed, there was any question about how deeply this quest burns inside the Lakers' best player, the answer surfaced in a flaming glare that made it seem as if he wanted to not only beat the Magic, but bite them.

Championship choppers.

"We've seen that before," said teammate Sasha Vujacic, shaking his head. "He does that when he really wants to get going."

We've all seen it before, but have we ever really seen it like this? Over the last 13 years here, Kobe Bryant has looked at me with every virtual shade of anger and intensity, but he's never looked at me, or anybody else I know, like that.

"You just put everything you have into the game and your emotions kind of flow out of you," he said, also quietly.

Those emotions began to flow midway through the second quarter, when the Magic, although clearly outmatched, held a one-point lead.

"Then Kobe started making his shots, and it was like there was nothing we could do about it," said the Magic's Rashard Lewis.

Bryant's jumper gave the Lakers the lead. Then he made another jumper. Then he sneaked behind Hedo Turkoglu and stole a rebound.

He found Derek Fisher for a three-pointer. He made a turnaround, fallaway jumper. He made another jumper that ended in hand-extended pose.

He found Lamar Odom for a layup. He found Pau Gasol for a jumper. He made a spinning layup with four seconds left in the half.

The previous three paragraphs all occurred in the last 6:36 of the second quarter.

During that time, the Lakers outscored the Magic, 21-10, and Bryant had a hand in 19 of those 21 points.

"We did everything we could to stop him," said Magic rookie Courtney Lee, the poor young victim here. "But he would make a shot. And make a shot. And make a shot."

You know who used to do the same thing in NBA Finals openers here? Bryant is going to hate to hear this, but in a certain section of Lakers history, he has now joined his good buddy Shaquille O'Neal.

During Shaq's three Finals MVP runs, his best, most involved games were always the first ones. And it was always intentional.

Shaq would purposely bring the sort of thunder that would send the opponent scurrying into a hole from which it never emerged.

In 2000, he had 43 points and 19 rebounds in the opener against the Indiana Pacers.

In 2001, he accounted for 44 and 20 against the Philadelphia 76ers.

In 2002, he went for 36 and 16 against the New Jersey Nets.

When stars want to get the first giant grip on a series and a season and a giant gold ball, this is how they lunge.

This is what Bryant just did.

While he probably won't take 34 shots again in this Finals, and while he will undoubtedly involve his teammates more in Game 2 on Sunday, the message was sent.

The road to the title doesn't go through Staples Center or Los Angeles. The road to the title goes through him.

"We understand how much he wants this, how bad he wants to win this championship," said Lamar Odom.

He shouldn't have to wait much longer. Those three Finals owned by O'Neal barely lasted much more than a blink, and neither will this one.

I initially predicted the Lakers in five games, but after watching the Magic shoot 30% and get outscored 56-22 in the paint, I must humbly change my pick.

I'm taking the Lakers in three.

If Dwight Howard is Superman, the dude split his tights, scoring just one basket in nearly 35 minutes. Heck, even a lump of Kryptonite could score one basket.

Turkoglu may be the Turkish Michael Jordan, but he looked more like the Washington Wizards' Michael Jordan, making just three of 11 baskets.

Lewis is, well, I'm still not sure what Lewis is. Did he even play? Oh, two baskets, zero assists, zero steals, four fouls? Oh, now I remember.

"We haven't found anything," said Bryant. "It's one game. No big deal."

Maybe the Lakers haven't found anything, but Bryant certainly has.

In all the talk that he couldn't win a title without Shaq, he couldn't win because he wasn't a leader, he couldn't win because he didn't deserve it . . . he has clearly found his fire.

"It's a bit of everything," Bryant said. "It's a lot of motivation, a lot of motivation, I'm using it all right now."

Plus a pretty mean toothbrush.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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