(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Hard to believe really, that I just watched a replay of the last game of the season. No more games on Foxtel or One. No more huddling around laptops at work with Justin TV streaming during lunch breaks. No more alt-tabbing frantically as the boss walks past your desk. The last Finals of the 00′s decade has been played out, and fittingly, it was won by the same team that kicked it off in 2000. Well, there was no Shaq this time.

The Lakers proved they were the class of the competition, and arguably, saved their best game of the season till last. Watching them overwhelm the Magic today had me perplexed – was this really the team we said was too soft? Was prone to blowing leads? Was lacking focus on the defensive end? It sure didn’t look like it. The Lakers I saw in Game 5 were a relentless team that showed no mercy, that went for the jugular. Finishing the job on the road in front of a hostile crowd seemed to sum that up better than anything.

Kobe Bryant in one foul swoop won his fourth title, his first Finals MVP, and silenced millions of Kobe haters around the world. What will they say now? He’s won without Shaq. He’s proven he can make his teammates better. He’s an MVP. He’s an unquestioned leader. He’s capped off a remarkable two years which saw him take the Lakers from a measly playoff contender to title favorites, through a Finals embarrassment to Olympic gold, to the Finals once again and championship glory. Watching Kobe celebrate earlier today, I started to feel a little relief myself… my own tiny monkey jumping off my back. As a Pistons fan who was relatively neutral about this Lakers v Magic Finals, I was a bit puzzled as to why I felt that way. And then it hit me. Being pro-Kobe the last five years has been a mentally and physically draining job. The ignorance and lack of appreciation of Kobe Bryant by some people has at times utterly astounded me – how blind do you have to be to realise you’re witnessing a “once-every-25-years player” as Jerry West recently said? I’ve spent too many hours arguing with people over beers or in forums or emails, carrying the Kobe flag, trying to balance out the lame and misguided anti-Kobe nonsense with a dose of honest reality. The frustrating thing was that when the Kobe-haters pulled the ‘championship card’, it was hard to argue with them – sure Kobe was great, but if he couldn’t lead his own team to a championship how great could he really be? That question has now been answered. That argument is dead. I can put down the flag. My job is done.

Aside from the insanely entertaining Bulls-Celtics series in the first round, to me, the Orlando Magic will be the most memorable team from these playoffs. They overcame what seemed at the time like two mind-blowing impossibilities – defeating the reigning champion Celtics on their home floor in a Game 7, and then getting past the LeBron James Train of Destiny. Of the three incorrect predictions I made all playoffs, the Magic were responsible for two of them (the Rockets beating the Blazers being the other). The Lakers only really surprised me these playoffs with their lousy play, most notably in the Rockets series – but fundamentally they did everything I expected them to do. The Magic on the other hand stunned me several times, and anyone following this blog knows how much my respect for them has grown in the past two months. I love watching teams rise, watching great players grow and learn – in many ways I’m more fascinated about how Dwight Howard will respond to this Finals loss than how Kobe will enjoy it. So while everyone is congratulating the Lakers, I’d like to thank the Orlando Magic for shaking things up a little and reminding us why we do indeed play out the entire postseason. One month ago a Lakers vs Magic Finals would have seemed ridiculous. As of now, I couldn’t imagine it being any other way.

I’ll have plenty more to say about the Lakers championship, about Kobe, about Dwight and Orlando, about the impending Free Agents, about Phil and Stan, all in the next few days. For now, I’m going to take a deep breath and reflect back on an immensely enjoyable season. Having spent a month in the USA when the season ended and the playoffs begun, and been lucky enough to speak to many of the players and personalities of the game, has meant this season will be etched into my brain forever. It started with a Paul Pierce HTFU, then some Puerto Rican Guy, blossomed into the story of the Platypus, a sprinkle of Ray Allen (for good measure) and perhaps culminating in the Greatest Story on Earth. It’s been real.

The thing is, I have a feeling next season will be better.

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