Lakers 83, Celtics 79: Perfect imperfection
The Larry O'Brien remains in Los Angeles! More analysis and stats below.
TEAMWORK SAVES THE DAY
With 7:28 left in the fourth quarter, Pau Gasol dribbles the ball along the left block, the Lakers down three points in a game ugly enough to turn Medusa to stone. Ron Artest, whose postseason offense and decision-making has been terrifyingly erratic, correctly reads the action, flashes across the lane for the pass from El Spaniard, then muscles up a 6-footer in the middle of the paint. Contact absorbed from Paul Pierce on the release, the ball drops through, then Artest, a 54.5 percent free throw shooter during the playoffs, completes the and-one. The score is tied at 61, and momentum feels as though it's improbably swinging in the Lakers' direction.
The following e-mail immediately arrives in my inbox from my mother, who is a big Lakers and is watching the game at home in St. Louis, donning her trusty Robert Horry No. 5 jersey.
"Holy %$^#. LOVE MOM."
I'm a professional writer, but I couldn't possibly have described the moment any better than Mom.
In a series with no sustainable momentum or predictability, it's only fitting Game 7 would feature a plot point nobody saw coming in a million years. Kobe Bryant -- best player of the entire postseason, the NBA's king of clutch, future first-ballot Hall of Famer, in his house, fifth ring on the line, a chance to redeem himself against a Boston squad that robbed him of a championship two seasons ago -- would cobble together probably the worst playoff game of his career.
His challenged shots refused to fall. His wide-open shots refused to fall. His shot selection en route to a 6-for-24 shooting clip for 23 points was often horrific. He was unable to make plays out of the double-team. He had four turnovers. He even lost the handle taking the ball down from over his head to put it on the floor. He needed to calm himself down just to sink a free throw. Things got so bad, the crowd began chanting "Kobe-Kobe-Kobe," but for the first time in Bryant's career, not out of worship, but rather to pick up its superstar's shattered spirits.
By Kobe's own admission, he was gassed, which was compounded by the magnitude of the moment, the quest, and the situation overwhelming him. The guy kinda wigged out. As a result, he tightened like a vice grip. As those jaws continually closed, the worse the results grew.
"The more I tried to push, the more it got away from me," said Bryant.
To make matters worse, three-time All-Star/third-team All-NBA Pau Gasol's game was better, but not without its own struggles, especially during the first half: 3-for-13 from the floor for just six points, plus two early fouls. Two missed freebies in as many tries. It felt like his shot was blocked every time he put the ball up. Yes, he grabbed ten rebounds, including six on the offensive end, and was clearly willing to mix things up down low. He also caught fire during the fourth quarter (nine points, six rebounds, two assists, one block). Still, Pau spent much of the game incapable of elevating a team by himself with Kobe flailing.
The NBA may be a star-driven league and the Lakers have been nothing if not a "name" factory as a franchise. But tonight, the Lakers' 16th title was secured almost entirely on the strength of elements far from glamorous.
- Defense: Boston shot just 41.4 percent from the field and 25 percent from behind the arc, while Paul Pierce and Ray Allen combined for 31 points on a miserable 8-for-29 clip. After a first quarter where Boston shot 58.8 percent, the Lakers clamped down, displaying the prowess that's become a calling card this season. No frame afterward was above 38.9 percent or 22 points for the Celts. It was a desperate, relentless and team-wide effort to save their season, and commendably, the Lakers stood up to the challenge.
- Rebounding: It was the lone constant in a series where every victory went to the team eating the most glass. Along those lines, the Lakers won that battle 52-40. And giving credit where credit is due, this was the one aspect of the game where Kobe flourished. His touch may have been off, but his grab was good enough to snatch 15 rebounds by himself.
- Supporting cast: Most importantly, just two games removed from a horrific collective showing, the Lakers' bench saved their superstar.
(Along the lines of the game's bizarre atmosphere, the assist came courtesy of Kobe Bryant. Who'da thunk that's how a crunch-time play would go down?)
Lamar Odom's seven-point, seven-rebound performance doesn't do justice to the relentless defense he played all game, nor the vital shot in the arm he supplied for the Lakers. Odom has never been a guy who people consider even a remote lock to show up, and he certainly hasn't been this series. But as everyone knows, when LO makes an impact, the Lakers typically win. Like his longtime buddy from Queens, the man came to play tonight.
Derek Fisher was off the floor at times with an in-game injury and foul trouble, but along with Artest brought some calm to the first-half storm. His first shot out of the gate was a 3-pointer, snapping a streak of 12 consecutive misses from beyond the arc, and with 6:11 remaining, hit another to force a 64-64 tie. The man remains as clutch as they come. Fisher finished the night 4-for-6 from the field for 10 points.
Andrew Bynum grabbed five rebounds in 14 minutes of first half run.
Even Sasha Vujacic came up huge to drain a pair of freebies with 11 seconds to go, essentially putting the game on ice.
It's hard to remember just three years ago, Kobe Bryant publicly complained about the quality of his teammates. Last Sunday, he seemed pretty down on them again before their terrific bounce back in Game 6. Tonight, the "other guys" solidified their place in championship No. 16.
Without question, they couldn't have made it this far without Bryant. But he'd have never have raised another Finals MVP trophy without them, either.
In a team game, it's the way things should be.
-- Andy Kamenetzky
SASHA VUJACIC COMES THROUGH
After the game, long after the Lakers had finished their private festivities, a well-celebrated Derek Fisher wandered back into the locker room, clutching the Larry O'Brien trophy. In the back of the room, he saw Sasha Vujacic, still talking to the media.
"Ice water!" he yelled at the Machine with an ear-to-ear grin.
No question. With 13 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Lakers up by two and inbounding the ball, knowing the Celtics would foul Phil Jackson inserted Vujacic, on the bench since the 10:42 mark of the fourth, for Ron Artest. Sure enough, the ball found him and he was sent to the stripe. Over the course of his career, Vujacic has hit at an 87.8 percent clip from the line, and is certainly more reliable than Artest as a foul shooter. But at the same time, Vujacic doesn't go there much, and to say he's never been put in a position even remotely like this one- his team needing two free throws to make Game 7 of the NBA Finals a two possession game- is an understatement.
Granted, my vantage point was awfully far from the court, but I don't think either shot even grazed the rim.
"You live for it. You dream about it as a kid, to be in the situation that I was tonight. For my teammates, for my coaches, for everybody to have confidence and believe in me was great," he said.
It's more than that. He's been criticized as a shooter who can't shoot, and a defender who, to use words from the great John Wooden, confuses activity with achievement. He's also seen as a guy who has regressed since his breakout season of 2007-08. And to be frank, there's truth in all of those things. But tonight, on the greatest stage basketball can provide, Vujacic stepped to the line and drilled two free throws in a situation where most people, and many players, would wet themselves.
It was a huge moment of redemption for a guy who didn't score a single point in last year's Finals, and has endured a horribly erratic season. For that matter, Vujacic came through in the limited minutes he played over the series. "From a personal point of view, [my season] had a lot of ups and downs. From not playing to playing, from injuries, from not walking [because of an ankle injury sustained in the final game of the season] to walking. To have an opportunity like I had now- two months ago I couldn't walk- and help the team to get the W against the team that knocked us out? It's emotional."
-- Brian Kamenetzky
Kobe Bryant, on struggling with the moment: "You know, I just wanted it so bad. I wanted it so, so bad. On top of that, I was on E. Man, I was really, really tired. And the more I tried to push, the more it kept getting away from me. I'm just glad that my teammates really got us back into the game. I was thankful that I was able to make one damn shot and made some free throws, but it was a tough one."
Bryant, on admitting it was special to beat the Celtics (shocker!): I was just lying to you guys. When you're in the moment, you have to suppress that, because if you get caught up in the hype of it all, you don't really play your best basketball. But I mean, you guys know what a student I am of the game. I know every series that the Lakers have played in. I mean, I was just a Laker nut, and I know every Celtics series. I know every statistic. It meant the world to me, as well, but I couldn't focus on that. I had to focus on playing."
Brian Shaw, on the Lakers picking up for Bryant: "I think the team was shook for a lack of a better word, because they've never seen Kobe struggle like that in a game of this magnitude. But Kobe was the MVP of the series, tonight, Ron Artest was the MVP of tonight's game, and there were different stretches during the game where different players on the team saved us. Fish's three, Ron's defense. He just took the ball away from them a couple times. Sasha, coming in hitting free throws when he was ice cold. Pau's offensive rebound at the end. Lamar had a stretch where he was scoring inside and tipping balls in and what have you. it was a true team effort, and it will help our growth as a team going forward, because Kobe had to trust other people to do some things, and he did, and they came through. It's a good feeling."
Fisher, on the team's determination: "You know, it's only fitting that in a game where we couldn't throw the ball in the ocean, no matter how big it is, that we figured out a way to get some stops when we had to. I mean, to win a 70-point game basically to win the title is probably atypical of any Laker team in recent memory. It's special."
Fisher, on the impact of Game 6, 2008: "We haven't stopped thinking about it. I mean, I think great accomplishments come out of negativity, setbacks, adversity. You know, there are times when you have to be down in order to get back up, and that was a down, low moment for us. And I think since that moment, there's been a greater appreciation for what it takes to be the best and the sacrifice that is required, and the last two seasons there hasn't been anybody better at it than us."
Luke Walton, on Pau Gasol: "Pau, he's so good you almost get tired of talking about it. He doesn't get enough respect for what he does. Tonight, he struggled early, but the plays he made down the stretch won us the ballgame. The offensive rebound, the block on Pierce. Everything he did down the stretch ultimately won us the ballgame. I don't have enough good words to say about Pau."