- The Washington Times - Friday, June 5, 2009

LOS ANGELES | So that’s what the surliness was all about. On the eve of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant kept his remarks to the media short and curt and refused to budge.

Bryant was asked about the “subdued” manner, but he discounted it as a quiet focus. Try maybe a smolder. A smolder that reached a full-blown raging fire Thursday night in a 100-75 Lakers victory over the Orlando Magic.

Bryant, with his second chance in as many years at his fourth NBA title, torched the Magic for 40 points on 16-for-34 shooting, handed out eight assists and grabbed eight rebounds.

“Well, he had the smell, and he found the angle of what he wanted to do out there on the floor and carried that game into the second half, just carried the game his way in the second half,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “I thought we went there a little bit too often, but he kept saying, ‘Keep coming back. I’m OK.’ So we did.”

Bryant’s offensive output more than tripled the production of Orlando star Dwight Howard, who managed just 12 points on 1-for-6 shooting from the field and a 10-for-16 performance from the foul line in his failed attempt at a tone-setting finals debut.

Despite holding a significant strength advantage over Los Angeles counterparts Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum and getting Bynum into foul trouble, Howard wasn’t able to take advantage. Also going against the Magic was an inability to get their shots to fall. Gone was the clutch 3-point shooting that carried Orlando past Cleveland in an Eastern Conference finals upset. And shots in the paint even clanked off the rim for the Magic, who shot a paltry 29 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3-point range.

Those ills, plus an inability to keep Bryant in check during the second and third quarters, were all that was needed for the Lakers, who host Game 2 on Sunday.

“Clearly after the first quarter, we were totally dominated on both ends of the floor and on the boards,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Going forth the rest of the series, we need to find a starting point, something we can hang our hats on, and do a better job of protecting the paint - they had 56 points in the paint - and we have to do a better job rebounding the ball.”

After falling behind 24-22 at the completion of the first quarter and watching Orlando increase its advantage to 29-24 in the first minute and a half of the second, the Lakers finally came to life. Lamar Odom scored back-to-back baskets and Luke Walton added six unanswered points to pull Los Angeles within 33-32. Then Bryant knocked down a jumper to give the Lakers a one-point lead and force an Orlando timeout. It was the first of two timeouts called by Magic coach Stan Van Gundy in a 45-second span, but neither did any good as the Lakers kept knocking down shots.

From the 10-minute mark of the quarter, when Walton hit his first shot, to the 2:47 mark, when Odom scored on an alley-oop from Bryant, the Lakers outscored the Magic 19-8 to take a 47-39 lead.

Bryant accounted for 10 points during the run and had 18 points by halftime. His driving layup with 4.3 seconds left on the clock gave Los Angeles - which shot 60 percent from the field in the second quarter compared to Orlando’s 31.6 percent - a 53-43 advantage as the teams headed for the locker rooms.

As impressive as Bryant’s first-half performance was, however, he topped it in the third quarter. Bryant, who entered the finals averaging 29.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists a game, burned the Magic for another 18 points on 6-for-11 shooting from the field while also going 6-for-6 from the foul line. His 18 points topped the 15 that Orlando’s players combined for in the third quarter, and the Lakers extended their lead to 82-58 heading into the fourth.

Bryant’s torrid performance made the difference for a Lakers team that had only two other double-digit scorers (Gasol with 16 and Odom with 11). Mickael Pietrus notched 14 points to lead the Magic.

“For whatever it’s worth, I told these guys it doesn’t matter if we win by 60 or six in this game. We just need to win,” said Jackson, who for his career is 43-0 - including 19-0 with the Lakers - when his team wins Game 1 of a playoff series. “And now we need to go out and re-establish it Sunday.”

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