by Marcel Mutoni

When Derek Fisher knocked in the decisive three-pointer in Game 4, one thing became immediately clear — not just to Laker fans, but anyone with a modicum of NBA basketball understanding: The Los Angeles Lakers were going to win the 2009 championship.

After that game, for the first time this season, we could finally breathe easily. I even spent the weekend in beautiful San Diego, hardly thinking about the events taking place in Orlando, and instead soaking in the great weather, scenery and night life. The NBA Finals had become almost an afterthought. There was no more drama; we were going to be crowned as champs once again.

It’s hard to put into words just how painful of a loss last year’s spanking at the hands of the Celtics was. Game 6 of the 2008 Finals is all anyone ever talks about, but the crushing Game 4 loss is what ultimately decided that series. There was a fatal brutality to that defeat, an emphatic reminder that L.A., talented as they may have been, simply wasn’t ready to win a title.

This year, there was an uneasiness to the entire season — each success was met with a stinging reminder that nothing mattered until a championship was won.

Winning a boatload of games in the regular season, en route to the top spot in the Western Conference was meaningless, for it didn’t guarantee the Larry O’Brien trophy. And the struggles to snuff the life from its opponents in the earlier stages of the postseason only served as ammunition for the team’s critics.

In the championship round, that’s when it all came together for this group. They showed why they’re the best basketball team in the world, led by its greatest player and coach.

When things got tight, they didn’t panic; they simply executed on both ends of the court, and together, they became champions.

Looking ahead, the Laker front office will have to address numerous questions over the summer (the contract situations of Trevor Ariza and Lamar Odom, what to with Derek Fisher, plus Phil Jackson’s coaching status for next year), but for the time being, it’s time to celebrate a job well done. After Shaq left town five years ago, they slowly recovered from the wreckage, painstakingly rebuilt the team around Kobe Bryant, and are now finally back on top of the NBA mountain.

There’s nothing left to prove for Bryant, Phil Jackson and the rest of the team. By winning this title, they quieted all of the doubters, and further cemented their places in the game’s history.

“It feels so good to be able to have this,” Bryant said postgame last night. “I don’t have to hear that criticism, that idiot criticism, anymore.”

Neither do the Lakers.