For the 12th time in NBA history, we've been blessed with a Celtics-Lakers showdown for all the marbles. Whether it's Russell versus Wilt, or Bird versus Magic, this matchup always finds a way to make instant history.
Boston loves it. L.A. loves it. Everyone in between loves it.
Probably the only guy in America who doesn't care is the one who matters most.
For Kobe Bryant, this series isn't about a rivalry. It's not about settling the score after the Finals of two years ago, and it's not about the broader historical scope of Celtics-Lakers. It's just about winning, here and now.
In his postgame presser after the Lakers beat the Suns in Game 6, punching their ticket for the Finals, Kobe scoffed at the notion that this was about getting even with the Celtics for 2008.
"I didn't give a damn who we played," he snapped. "Doesn't matter to me."
Celtics, Magic, Cavs — not important. All that matters to Kobe is ring No. 5.
Kobe's still only 31 years old, but he's already mastering the fine art of polishing his resume and building his legacy. He already has a keen understanding of how he wants to be remembered 50 years from now.
He's given up on being remembered for his magnetizing personality. Too much has gone on off the court (like in 2007, when he demanded a trade out of L.A. and very nearly got his wish) and outside of basketball altogether (like in 2003, when God knows what happened in a hotel room in Eagle, Colo.) for Kobe to cement himself as one of the game's model citizens.
He's given up on being the ultimate Laker icon — Magic Johnson has him beat there. Hard to steal that thunder.
No, Kobe has decided that for him, the surefire route to greatness is through sheer numbers.
Twelve-time All-Star. Twelve-time All-NBA. Ten-time All-Defense.
It has a nice ring to it.
At the moment, Kobe's got four rings — same as Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan, who are often regarded as the two great winners of this era. He's one title behind Magic, who was a five-time champion before he finished his twenties, and two behind Michael Jordan, who rattled off six in eight years toward the end of his career.
He knows that if he wants to be remembered as a true legend of the game — one of the 10 best players ever, maybe even top five — he's got to keep winning. There's no way he can stop now.
That's what Kobe meant on Saturday night when he told the media plainly that "the challenge is to win a championship, and the Celtics are in the way." Because to him, that's all that matters: winning it. The rivalry, the animosity, the East Coast-West Coast feud between players and fans alike — all that stuff is secondary.
Great players have a way of evolving as they grow older. They become better passers, better defenders. They see the floor better and understand the game better. They add more moves to their offensive game — pump fakes, fadeaways, post-up moves against defenders big and small.
Kobe has developed in all of those ways. But the greatest Kobe evolution of all has been as a winner.
In the first act of his career, he was a sidekick to Shaq, a second banana on a team that achieved greatness. In the second, he was the leader of an underperforming Laker team, prone to playoff misses and first-round exits.
In the third, he's reinventing himself.
For Kobe Bryant, the Finals mean everything. You can win the hearts of millions, you can pile up awards, and you can make all the money in the world — but in the end, all that really matters is winning those rings. It's the only thing he gives a damn about.
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