By John Hollinger
LOS ANGELES – It was fitting that an offensive rebound provided what proved to be the title-clinching play. And it was equally fitting that all the basketball gods made a mockery of all our non-stop chatter about individual legacies when a team-wide Lakers effort that won them Game 7 in spite of, rather than because of, their best player.
All night long, the Lakers had battled to overcome a mystifying inability to shoot straight by sheer brute force, grabbing 23 of their own misses and maintaining possession four other times on balls knocked out of bounds.
So when Kobe Bryant forced a long 3 under duress with 28 seconds left, it was only natural that Pau Gasol – for the ninth time – came down with it. Gasol held off Rajon Rondo for the rebound, passed it back to out to Bryant at the free-throw line, and then Bryant drove the lane to draw a foul.
Had Boston secured the rebound, they would have had the ball with a chance to tie and send the game to overtime. Instead, Bryant’s free throw put the Lakers up 81-76, and the Celtics never had the ball with a chance to tie again.
It all started when the Lakers caught Boston in a bad match-up coming upcourt. Kevin Garnett ended up guarding Derek Fisher in the left corner, leaving Rondo frantically trying to switch men with Rasheed Wallace and Paul Pierce. He ended up on Gasol near the foul line as the Celtics went to trap Bryant in a pick-and-roll and then, as the shot went up, under the rim. Rondo had inside position, but being a foot shorter proved problematic. Gasol reached up with one arm, held Rondo off with the other, and claimed the rebound near the baseline.
“We were trying to trap and we got caught,” said Rivers. “I thought Rondo boxed him out. He went over his back, but they’re not going to call that with the size advantage.”
“I just wanted to go get it,” said Gasol. “ I was able to box him out and hold him with one arm. I was pretty proud of that play because those little play, those little thing make a huge different, especially at that point of the game.”
For the game L.A. kept possession 27 times out of a possible 62 caroms, an exorbitant Offensive Rebound Rate of 43.5% -- a normal total is barely half of that. It couldn’t have come at a better time. L.A. shot a horrid 32.5% from the field and 67.6% from the line, but won by securing 22 possessions more than Boston between its rebound and turnover advantages.
Of course, rebounding has been an issue the entire Finals – the team with more rebounds won every game. Even more atypically, the team with more offensive rebounds won six of the seven. Offensive rebounds typically correlate with losing, because you can’t get an offensive rebound unless you miss a shot, and usually the team with more offensive rebounds gained that distinction by missing a great many more shots.
True to that trend, L.A. missed more shots than Boston tonight, but the offensive boards allowed them to attempt so many that it didn’t matter. With Kendrick Perkins absent, L.A.’s size put even more pressure on the Celtics’ defensive rebounders, especially on the opening minutes. Seven-footer Andrew Bynum ganged up with Gasol to regain possession on the first eight Laker misses before Boston finally claimed a carom – a missed free throw that Rasheed Wallace rebounded at knee-level.
“I thought the lack of size was the difference,” said Rivers. “Our guys battled down there, but 23-8 on offensive rebounds, and the 37-17 discrepancy in free throws, that makes it impossible to overcome.”
The rebounding battle became so important because the Lakers couldn’t get out of their own way on offense. Bryant deserved his Finals MVP award but Game 7 was a stinker for him, shooting 6-of-24 with just two assists and committing four turnovers. Instead, it was his teammates who picked him up.
Which leads us to the big takeaway from L.A. boarding its way to the title: Reminding us that this is a team sport.
The silly “Kobe has five, Michael has six” debates we had all week now seem more ludicrous than ever after his teammates bailed him out on a night that would allegedly decide his legacy.
Yes, the ring’s the thing, and even Bryant couldn’t resist noting that he now has one more of them than Shaquille O’Neal. But this isn’t tennis or golf – individuals don’t win championships. Teams do.
Bryant helped prove it when he suffered consecutive first-round exits prior to Gasol’s arrival. As brilliant as Bryant has been at times in these Finals, it’s noteworthy that his best Finals performance (Game 5) came in defeat, and his worst in the deciding victory.
Instead it was L.A.’s cavalry that rode to the rescue. Artest, whom Laker coach Phil Jackson called the team’s MVP tonight, suffocated Paul Pierce on defense and scored 20 points, including a back-breaking 3 with a minute left. Derek Fisher hit a difficult 3 to tie the game midway through the fourth, Gasol owned the glass in the fourth quarter, and Sasha Vujacic stepped out of the freezer to hit two title-clinching free throws with 11 seconds left.
That’s not a knock on Bryant. That’s just how it’s usually been done … far more frequently than most people care to remember. Take Jordan, for instance. He clinched his first title as a mostly-bystander watching a monstrous fourth quarter from John Paxson … and the second with five reserves leading a 16-point comeback against Portland in Game 6 ... and the third watching Paxson nail the game-winner in Phoenix.
In fact, if a player had his legacy defined tonight it wasn’t Bryant, who was the third-best player on his own team, but Gasol. Lambasted for his lack of toughness and fortitude in the 2008 Finals, and earlier in this series, he dominated the fourth quarter with nine points, six rebounds, two assists and a blocked shot. Perhaps that’s why he seemed more emotional than usual in the aftermath.
“He was the one guy I felt really played with good energy," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson.
As a result, the Lakers are champions, no matter how ugly it might have looked in stretches -- "It wasn't well done, but it was done," said Jackson.
And in the end, it wasn't done by legacies or superstars, but by the very basic fact that the Lakers earned so many shots they couldn't help but get at least a few them to the bottom of the net.