Bryant makes early statement in finals

One step toward redemption, one step toward a ring.

Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant shoots over Orlando Magic Marcin Gortat en route to 40 points and a 100-75 win in Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday.

Lakers 100 Magic 75

LOS ANGELES — One step toward redemption, one step toward a ring.

Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers began the NBA finals with power and purpose Thursday night.

Bryant, playing like a man possessed, scored 40 points as the Lakers, who have waited nearly a year for the chance to erase bitter memories of a Boston beatdown and a championship they felt belonged to them, pounded the Orlando Magic 100-75 in Game 1.

This year, nothing short of a 15th title will do for the Lakers.

And with the sensational Bryant out front, they may be on their way.

Game 2 is Sunday night at star-studded Staples Center, where actors Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio and rapper Kanye West had front-row seats to see another virtuoso performance by Bryant, who scored 18 points in the third quarter as the Lakers opened a 26-point lead.

The last time the Lakers were seen in the finals, they were heading toward their locker-room in Boston last June and a summer break after being drubbed by 39 points in a series-ending Game 6 by the Celtics. The renewed rivalry between the league’s superpowers never panned out.

Bryant and his teammates have used that humiliation to motivate them all season and throughout these playoffs.

They are on a mission.

The Magic, who went 2-0 against the Lakers in the regular season, appeared a touch overwhelmed in their first finals appearance since 1995. Not even the return of all-star point guard Jameer Nelson from a four-month layoff following shoulder surgery could help the Eastern Conference champions. Orlando centre Dwight Howard was engulfed by two and three Lakers every time he touched the ball and scored 12 points — 10 on free throws — on just 1-of-6 shooting.

And the Magic’s outside shooters, so deadly while eliminating MVP LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference finals, were off the mark.

“We did a good job on him, but he’ll be ready to go Game 2,” Bryant said. “We worked very hard on the perimeter, keeping those guys out of rhythm, then we did a good job on him inside — giving him different looks.”

The Magic went just 8-of-23 on threes and shot only 30 per cent overall. They are facing some long odds, too.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson, seeking a record 10th title, is 43-0 in series in which his team wins Game 1.

On the dry-erase board in Orlando’s locker-room, coach Stan Van Gundy, in handwriting as neat as a schoolteacher’s, devoted two sections on how he wanted his team to defend Bryant.

Nothing worked.

The self-proclaimed “Black Mamba” slithered around Magic defenders with ease. Bryant scored an effortless 18 points in the first half and then took over in the third quarter, scoring 18 of L.A.’s 29 points with an assortment of jumpers, fadeaways and layups.

“We wanted to come out and keep our energy up,” Bryant said. “We wanted to stay aggressive and it was my responsibility over the course of the game to keep it going.”

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