After his post-game sideline interview, Kobe Bryant walked up to Ron Artest who was sitting on the bench, took his teammate’s hand, pounded him on the chest, gathered his head to his, and whispered something in his ear. Maybe Bryant welcomed him to his first NBA Finals appearance. Maybe he commended Artest for a great job on guarding Paul Pierce, or a great job on his defense in general (it doesn’t get any better than Ron Artest refusing to give up space to anyone he is guarding). In whatever combination of words or actions, the sentiment was clear — thank you.
It has been two years since the Lakers folded over themselves in Boston, doe-eyed and filled with excitement to have made it to the NBA Finals when the future and direction of their team had been so unclear when that 2007-2008 season began. It has been two years since Bryant’s greatness was reduced by a Celtic defense that maimed his ability to carry the team to a victory; two years since Pau Gasol was deemed too soft and weak to play against the likes of physical players like Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins; and two years since Andrew Bynum had to sit in a suit on the Laker bench, knowing that his mere presence on the court would probably help his team against Boston’s beating. That was then, however, and tonight was now.
Unlike their 2008 version, this Laker team was prepared to face the hardnosed, defense-first minded Celtics. With double technicals issued to Ron Artest and Paul Pierce 27 seconds into the game (for fighting for space under the Laker basket), physicality had shown up early, but from the unlikelier team.
“The Lakers were clearly the more physical team,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “They were more aggressive. They attacked us the entire night.”
Out-rebounding the road team 42-31, with 12 offensive rebounds that led to a 16-0 advantage on second chance points, not to mention keeping the Celtics to 43% shooting, the Lakers out-hustled and out-muscled the Celtics right out of Staples Center.
The focus on the defensive end was obvious in Derek Fisher and Pau Gasol taking charges. The defensive effort was apparent in Jordan Farmar stealing the ball from Rajon Rondo when he wasn’t looking, just a few seconds after the much-heralded guard caught an inbounds pass. The defense was in Ron Artest and Lamar Odom harassing Kevin Garnett into two straight missed layups. The defense was in refusing to give up possessions (repeat: 12 offensive rebounds).
Pau Gasol, undeniable in his offensive skills, was criticized for allowing Kevin Garnett to bully him on both ends of the court, but tonight, it was the Spaniard who got the best of his primary defender. Scoring 23 points on 8-14 shooting, collecting 14 boards, 3 blocks and 3 assists, Gasol was so much more of what he wasn’t in 2008 — confident and aggressive, not to mention resilient. He played all but 86 seconds of the game.
“Just the little actions that represent not backing down,” Phil Jackson said of Gasol, “getting hit, taking the blow, absorbing it, not reacting to it one way or the other.”
Helping Gasol on the frontline was Andrew Bynum. The young center, whose last procedure was rendered ineffective at keeping the swelling in his right knee at bay, played a good 28 minutes and produced 10 points on 4-6 shooting, 6 rebounds, and was another source of length on the court that the Celtics could not contend with. Asked about his condition after the game, Bynum cited that adrenaline helped in masking the pain. He is not being asked to dominate the game on either end, but his mere presence is an advantage for this Laker team who has thrived on the production of their big men in the post-season.
Leading the charge, as always, was Kobe Bryant, with 30 points on 10-22 shooting, seven rebounds, six assists and a steal. Whether it was Bryant’s aggressiveness at attacking the basket or the Celtics’ lack of defensive execution, the Lakers captain didn’t settle for perimeter shots all evening. He scored on layups, 3-4 foot floaters, and even a dunk or two (one a fast break alley-oop from partner in crime Derek Fisher), forcing his guards of the evening, Ray and Tony Allen, into a collective nine personal fouls. And it wouldn’t be a game without a Bryant dagger, tonight’s in the form of a three-pointer in the final seconds.
Points in the paint were another huge advantage for the home team, 48-30.
“It was a parade down the paint,” Doc Rivers told reporters, and not just from the big men. The entire Laker backcourt, Fisher, Bryant, Brown and Farmar, all drove to the hoop by way of open lanes, without a green uniform in sight.
Overall, the Lakers were their own supporting cast because they did just that, supported each other. With Odom in foul trouble, Gasol and Bynum were there playing quality minutes with little rest. With Bryant and Fisher in foul trouble, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Shannon Brown came in to play defense, run the offense and maintain and even increase the lead.
With the lead dwindling down bit by bit in the fourth quarter, Lakers captains Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher reportedly reminded their team to stay focused. In essence, this togetherness, this collective effort and attitude, whether the clock is running or not, is what keeps this Laker team strong.
Much has happened in two years — personnel has changed a bit, a championship was won, and the weak and soft appear fortified. Missing a title by two wins two seasons ago is something the Lakers have not forgotten. However, “In order to move on,” Lamar Odom said in the locker room, “you have to put the past behind you.” That 2008 Laker team was ecstatic to get to the NBA Finals, but this 2010 squad won’t be happy until they’ve beaten one of the best to be crowned the league’s best, and that makes all the difference.
Pre-Game Thoughts: We asked for a rematch and we’re getting it. We want revenge, and here’s the opportunity. LET’S GO LAKERS!
Half-Time Thoughts: It was a close game to start, slowed down by the abundance of fouls called (28 already), but a spurt that began with Ron Artest’s three has given the Lakers momentum.
Most Thoughtless Player(s) of the Game: Refs — for calling 54 fouls!
Most Thought-filled Player(s) of the Game: Team L.A., for being the intimidators rather than the intimidated, for being aggressive rather than passive, and for letting this Boston Celtics team know that if they want their championship back, they won’t have a soft team to take it from.