x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Un-Shaquilled Bryant wins a big one

Kobe Bryant lifted a huge weight off hi s shoulders this summer - namely the 325lb frame of Shaquille O'Neal.

Kobe Bryant lifted a huge weight off hi s shoulders this summer - namely the 325lb frame of Shaquille O'Neal. The pair won three consecutive NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers at the start of the decade. O'Neill then went on to win another championship with the Miami Heat, but Bryant had won no more, leading some to say that the guard was unable to win without the help of O'Neill. All that changed on June 14 this year, when the Lakers beat the Orlando Magic 99-86 to claim a 4-1 series victory and their first league crown since 2002. Bryant, now 31, said of all the talk that he could not win without O'Neill: "It was like Chinese water torture. I think we as a team answered the call because they understood the challenge that I had, and we all embraced it." The victory also gave Lakers coach Phil Jackson a record 10th NBA title, moving him past the legendary Red Auerbach in the all-time list. The other notable event in the 2009 play-offs was the Boston Celtics' 4-3 win over the Chicago Bulls, which is already being considered as the greatest first round meeting in league history. Five of the games were decided by three points or fewer, and four matches went to overtime before the Celtics prevailed 109-99 in the decider. Debate about who is the best player in the league still rages. LeBron James slightly sullied his reputation after refusing to shake hands with Orlando players after they knocked Cleveland out of the play-offs, but he has been nothing short of magnificent for the past 12 months, The forward, who turns 25 today (DEC 30), won his first league MVP award in the summer. Even more importantly, he is a free agent next summer and refusing to talk about if he will resign with the Cavaliers. Indeed, there are several other big names whose contracts expire in six months. Dwayne Wade (Miami), who is arguably the third best player in the league, Chris Bosh (Toronto) and Joe Johnson (Atlanta) all have the option to change teams. Expect at least one of them to land with the New York Knicks, although it is still debatable whether James will fancy a joining a much weaker team, despite having prospect of playing in Madison Square Garden. James' future with the Cavaliers could well depend on whether they win the 2010 NBA title. Over the summer he was joined in Cleveland by O'Neill, but the 37-year-old centre has yet to have a majorly positive influence on the team yet. The league also has a burgeoning crop of youngsters. Rookies Brandon Jennings (Milwaukee) and Tyreke Evans (Sacremento) have both been scoring sensations since October, while Kevin Durant's scoring prowess has made Oklahoma City a relevant team in only their second season since moving from Seattle. Greg Oden, the man taken one place ahead of Durant, and first overall in the 2007 draft, has not had such a positive start to his career. The Portland centre, who missed the entire 2007/8 season with an injured right knee, injured his left knee on December 5 and will not play again until next season. And at a time of year when we remember those less fortunate than use, spare a thought for the New Jersey Nets, who made the worst ever start in NBA history by losing their first 18 games. The one bright sport for them has been Russian businessman Mikhail Prokhorov promising to invest heavily in the team, but only if they move to Brooklyn. akunawicz@thenational.ae