Will This Lakers Title Define the Bryant, Jackson Legacies?

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Tom Hood/Corbis

For both Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson, last night’s game 7 victory over the Celtics was a must win.

Orange County Register columnist Jeff Miller’s Wednesday piece on No. 24 argued that regardless of who captured the NBA championship, Kobe’s status as a winner was not in question.

“Bryant’s legacy is as golden as the jersey he’ll be wearing in Game 7,” Miller wrote. He could retire during the national anthem Thursday and they’d still build him a statue outside Staples Center.”

If basketball were all about individual careers, that would be true. But when it comes to Lakers-Celtics and Bryant’s role in fortifying his franchise’s side of that battle, it’s a different story. Until yesterday evening, Los Angeles was a miserable 2-9 all-time against Boston in the NBA Finals, including an 0-4 mark in game-seven clinchers.

Thursday night’s victory silenced the first and erased the second of those stinkers. The Lakers may have been the defending champs, but what good would that 2009 title be when sandwiched between two Finals losses to the hated Celtics? Bryant squelched the negatives in that sentence with a gritty 23-point, 15-rebound outing.

If Bryant were really Michael Jordan reincarnated (which he isn’t), he would never have tolerated losing a championship series. Jordan’s true dominance with the Chicago Bulls came from the fact that he was 6-0 all-time in NBA Finals appearances. Bryant stands at a respectable 5-2 — a fact that helped lead AP Sports columnist Jim Litke to argue before game 7 that no matter what Bryant does in the future, he will never escape Michael’s shadow.

No matter what Jordan did, he never was a Laker or a Celtic. Sure, he beat up on Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and the long line of other players whose title aspirations never made it past Chicago. Yet Jordan remains an afterthought in the game’s greatest rivalry.

That’s where the importance of last night’s win also applies to Phil Jackson. The zen master entered the 2010 series as the NBA’s record holder with 10 championship rings — six of those attained with the help of Jordan’s bravado. With a 1-2 record in finals appearances with Los Angeles since Shaquille O’Neal’s departure, and questions looming regarding his coaching future, what type of salt might a loss have spread on those wounds?

While coaching the Bulls, Jackson similarly beat up on a long line of opposing coaches during the finals — Jerry Sloan, George Karl, and even Pat Riley. But Riley always had one thing over Jackson. Up until last night, no other Lakers coach had beaten the Celtics in an NBA Finals. Riley led L.A. to its only wins over Boston during the 1985 and 1987 title years.

With that history in hand, both Kobe and Phil can rest assured. When future generations think of great Lakers runs, this is surely the year that they will point to.