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LOS ANGELES -- They got the stop. Trailing by three points in the final 30 seconds, the Celtics got Kobe Bryant to brick a 3-pointer from the top of the key, giving them a chance to tie the game.
There was Pau Gasol grabbing the offensive rebound. And soon thereafter there was Kobe getting fouled, making two free throws, and, well, that one play typified the entire evening.
|Pau Gasol (18 rebounds) and the rest of the Lakers were more than Kevin Garnett and the Celtics could handle under the basket.|
The Celtics are going home without the Larry O'Brien Trophy because the Lakers simply outmuscled them, outmaneuvered them, and pretty much did what they had done two nights earlier on the glass. They had their way.
And if we learned anything in this series, the games were won by the team that got the rebounds. In a nutshell, that is how the Celtics lost Game 7, 83-79, and that is how they lost the NBA Finals. They were never a particularly good rebounding team all season. They were definitely not a good rebounding team in the final two games of the NBA Finals, only one of which they needed to win.
Game 7 won't be remembered as a thing of beauty. This was Wicked Witch of the West ugly. Series MVP Kobe Bryant missed 18 of 24 shots. Ray Allen missed 11 of 14 shots. Paul Pierce missed 10 of 15 shots. The Lakers shot 32.5 percent from the field, 20 percent from 3-point territory, 68 percent from the line -- and they still won.
"We had 23 offensive rebounds," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said by way of explanation. "That's how you do it. It's about being persistent, aggressive and getting extra shots. That's what we did."
Give the Celtics props for lasting as long as they did. Rasheed Wallace gave them almost 36 minutes even though he appeared to be sweating SAE 30 in the final minutes. Doc Rivers said afterward that Wallace might be leaning toward retirement, even though he has two years left on his contract. Pierce, Allen and Rajon Rondo all played about 45 minutes.
The Celtics simply ran out of gas, surrendering 30 points in the fourth quarter after giving up only 53 in the first three. They got into foul trouble, allowing the Lakers to attempt a staggering 21 free throws in the fourth quarter. But when they look back at this one -- if they ever choose to do so -- they will see that they really lost it early, even as they had the lead. They allowed the Lakers to once again assault the boards and, eventually, they paid the price.
The Celtics held the Lakers to 25.6 percent shooting in the first half. That's a church league number. Yet the Boston lead was only six points because the Lakers were able to hang around, getting second and third chances. They had 15 of their offensive rebounds in that first 24 minutes and a seven-point advantage in second-chance points.
What could the Celtics do? Kendrick Perkins wasn't available, although he played in Game 1 when the Lakers also massacred Boston on the glass. Kevin Garnett managed a measly three rebounds while the guy he was guarding much of the game, Gasol, had, um 18. Gasol had more offensive rebounds than the Celtics' team (9-8). Wallace battled cramps; conditioning was not in his 2009-2010 playbook.
"I thought the lack of size was the difference in the game," Rivers said. "I thought our guys battled down there, but 23-8 on offensive rebounds, and then the 37-17 discrepancy in free throws, that makes it almost impossible to overcome."
The Lakers set the tone early. They had second- or third-chance opportunities on their first four possessions. But, typical of the way the game was to unfold, they came away with only five points because they went 0-for-3 on their first possession and later Gasol bricked a couple of free throws. (He missed six in the game.)
The Celtics, meanwhile, capitalized as they could, leading by nine after one, by the aforementioned six at halftime and by 13 in the third following a pair of Rondo hoops.
But the Lakers continued their relentless rebounding and the Celtics' offense went into seizure. There was a 24-second violation as they tried to set up for a last-second shot at the end of the third. (Has any team looked worse at the end of quarters than these guys did in the playoffs?)
Then came a killer drought in the fourth. The Celtics went almost five minutes without a basket, getting only three Allen free throws while the Lakers scored 12 points to take the lead for good. (It would have been more had not Gasol missed two more free throws.) Rivers implored his players to stop playing what he calls "hero basketball" and try to move the ball and trust each other. The Celtics were one-and-done on four straight possessions.
"I thought we stopped playing a little bit," Rivers said. "I thought we had great motion and movement throughout the game and in that one stretch, we stopped. And it hurt us because they were scoring. I was trying to get our group to understand that we could have a scoring drought, but they couldn't score. The problem was we went on that drought. And they scored."
They did indeed. And in a game where points came at a premium, that was a game-changing stretch. The Lakers had only two field goals in the final five minutes but still scored 15 points. The Celtics were in the penalty with 6:49 to play and the aggressive Lakers took full advantage.
Aggression and assertiveness are usually rewarded in the NBA and the Lakers were easily the more aggressive, assertive and determined bunch on this particular night. They kept pounding on the door all night and finally broke it down in the fourth quarter. On this night, they were the deserving winner.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.