(AFP) – Jun 4, 2008
BOSTON, Massachusetts (AFP) — Kobe Bryant's experience from three titles in four prior trips to the National Basketball Association Finals could play a key role for the Los Angeles Lakers against the Boston Celtics.
When the best-of-seven championship showdown opens here Thursday, the NBA Most Valuable Player's leadership of a young Lakers team could be a crucial a factor as his scoring skills.
"One thing I see in this series that could hurt the Celtics is Kobe Bryant has been there before," retired Celtics legend Larry Bird said. "He will be a steadying force for the rest of the players. They look up to him so much.
"When things get tough, he might be the one that can pull them through."
Bryant, averaging 31.9 points and 5.8 assists a game in the playoffs, and three-time NBA champion Derek Fisher are the only Lakers who have won titles.
"Kobe has made us better. He's the first one at practice and the last to leave. That has rubbed off on me and my teammates. That's the reason we're here," Lakers forward Lamar Odom said.
"If we're going to win, we're going to have to move the ball around. For Kobe it's very important. We won't win this series if we try to give the ball to Kobe and let him go one-on-one.
"This is a stage we know we can play on, and we're confident we can win."
Bryant has bolstered that confidence by trusting his teammates.
"It was an evolution," Bryant said. "The most important step was them showing me they wanted it as much as I did. They wanted to work as hard as I did. Once I saw that, it made it easier."
Once a one-man gang, Bryant now tells teammates what the pressure of a championship series will be like.
"The team that executes the best - that's what it boils down to," Bryant said. "All the hoopla is not going to play the game for you. We discuss it a little more as the days go by."
Lakers coach Phil Jackson, whose nine titles match the late Celtics coach Red Auerbach for the all-time NBA coaching record, loves how Bryant has embraced the challenge of making teammates better.
"Players that are in an echelon above... feel pressure to do a lot of it on their own if they see their teammates falter. Kobe got in that position the second half of last year and it was a very diffuclt finish," Jackson said.
"We resolved that wasn't going to happen again like that to us. So he has been really inclusive and encouraged his teammates to the point of getting guys going late in the game when he feels guys need support. That has been a key."
Even though Celtics leaders Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are all making their NBA Finals debuts, Boston boasts Sam Cassell from Houston's 1994 and 1995 NBA champions and James Posey, who played on Miami's 2006 title team.
"We've been doing a lot of talking with Sam and Posey, just the sense of urgency and enjoying the moment and all that," Pierce said.
"These opportunities don't always come along. I got that from them guys. So I'm going to appreciate this time, enjoy it and understand this is it so you have to leave it all on the court."
Bryant's experience edge in finals is not a major factor, Garnett and Pierce said.
"Definitely his experience helps his club, but we have guys on our team that have won championships too," Pierce said. "You talk about the moments, the mentality you've got to have. Ultimately you've got to put it on the court."
"Kobe and D-Fish have their experience, but at the end of the day it's basketball. You play it the way you know," Garnett said. "You bring what you bring, play with your heart and soul and play together as a team."
Celtics coach Doc Rivers gives Jackson the edge in finals experience as well, but will stick with the strategy that gave Boston a league-best 66-16 record and two regular-season victories over the Lakers.
"I've never been here and Phil has. He's won nine, lost one. There's no comparison. I don't know if it will (matter)," Rivers said. "I'm going to coach my team. He's going to coach his. I'm just going to do my job."
That means playing down the Lakers-Celtics rivalry. Boston, with a record 16 NBA titles, is 8-2 in the finals against the Lakers, who have 14 NBA crowns.
"They are definitely conscious of it. You have to be a mushroom if you're not," Rivers said. "But our guys are focused on their goal and the process of it, not the fanfare.
"Because it's the Lakers and Celtics, it's talked about more. But the bottom line is they are only going to remember the winners and they want to be part of that."
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