There will be no Kobe-LeBron showdown in the NBA finals — and that could make things tougher for the Lakers.
Instead, Los Angeles will face Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic, who swept the Western Conference champions during the regular season.
The Lakers will try to prove that means nothing when the finals begin Thursday on their home floor against Orlando, which upset Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Cavaliers had the NBA's best record, but lost both meetings with the Lakers. Had Cleveland made the finals, it would have set up a highly anticipated duel between Bryant and James, the last two NBA MVPs.
The Magic ruined that script, just as they wrecked Boston's hopes of a repeat by ousting the defending champions in the second round. Now they look to deny Phil Jackson his 10th coaching title, which would move him past Red Auerbach for most all-time.
Orlando finished off Cleveland 103-90 on Saturday behind 40 points from Howard and is in the finals for only the second time. The Magic can become the first first-time champion since another Florida team, the Miami Heat, won the 2006 title.
The Lakers clinched their 30th finals appearance, most in NBA history, by beating the Denver Nuggets 119-92 on Friday to win that series in six games. They remained stuck on 15 championships, second behind Boston, when the Celtics beat them last year in six games.
Los Angeles is in much better shape this year. Center Andrew Bynum is healthy after missing the 2008 postseason with a knee injury, and Trevor Ariza — a former Magic player — has become a key starter after missing most of last year's playoffs with a foot injury.
It didn't matter who the Lakers had against the Magic this season. Orlando won 106-103 at home in December despite 41 points from Bryant, then pulled out a 109-103 victory in Los Angeles about a month later behind 25 points and 20 rebounds from Howard.
Still, Jackson said he didn't care which team the Lakers faced.
"The only thing that makes a difference is if it's Orlando, we make one road trip in this setup," Jackson said after Friday's victory.
The Magic made 12 3-pointers in each game, a weapon they relied heavily on in their elimination of the Cavaliers. Los Angeles should be better equipped to deal with the matchup problems that Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu created against Cleveland by inserting Lamar Odom, who had strong performances in the final two games of the West finals after struggling through most of the series.
Looming over the series is the large shadow of Shaquille O'Neal, who led both teams to the finals. He took Orlando there in 1995, then left for Los Angeles the following year and the Magic struggled for years after.
He teamed with Bryant to lead the Lakers to three straight titles from 2000-02, but the Lakers haven't won another since they traded him in the summer of 2004.
Game 2 will also be at Staples Center before the series shifts to Central Florida for Games 3 and 4, and if necessary, Game 5.
by the associated press