It wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was downright ugly. After playing one of their most perfect games on Tuesday night’s Game 6, the Los Angeles Lakers started Game 7 looking panicked rather than poised; harried rather than patient; lost rather than commanding. The Boston Celtics, on the other hand, despite losing a key player at the very last second, looked every bit as confident and ready as the Lakers had… two days ago.
Kobe Bryant was flanked by two or three Celtics each time he held the ball, forcing him into awkward shots and turnovers; Pau Gasol’s shot attempts were hitting nothing but rim or backboard, no matter how close he stood to the hoop; and the Lakers couldn’t hit a free throw if they were standing inside the basket.
The Celtic defense breathed down hard on the Lakers’ offense, and after 24 minutes of agonizing game time, the home team was shooting a lowly 27% from the field. They were only down by 6, however, 40-34 because of the one statistic that has decided every game in this series — rebounds.
In the first half alone, the Lakers out-rebounded the Celtics on the offensive end 15-2. Aware that their offensive struggles were hurting their team’s chances of winning the game, Bryant (23 points on 6-24, 15 rebounds, 2 assists) and Gasol (19 points, 18 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks) found other ways of contributing. They couldn’t hit their shots, so they hit the boards instead, combining for 33 of the team’s 53 rebounds.
Finding themselves in a 49-36 hole in the third quarter, the Lakers looked primed to be beaten, again, by their hated rivals, this time on their own home court. If there is one thing that can be said of this defending championship team, however, it’s that relinquishing is never an option. Bryant soon hit a jumper, followed by a signature left-handed hook by Gasol, then Derek Fisher hit one from mid-range, which was soon followed by Lamar Odom collecting a couple of misses and then collecting four points, which was then followed by a Bryant lay-up. Suddenly that 13-point lead was 57-53 at the end of the third.
Before the fourth quarter, Bryant said that Derek Fisher gathered the team and advised, “Guys, we got 12 minutes to put it together,” and the Lakers certainly did. For all their offensive misfortune in the game, there also existed a greater and much more, almost divine power — their sheer will.
Asked about their tremendous rebounding throughout the game and especially in the final quarter, Pau Gasol answered, “We thought we had no other option. We knew there was a long time left. We knew we weren’t playing our best. We knew that we still had a chance. It was about getting a few stops in a row… shake off all that tension, all the excitement, settle down, stay poised, execute and we’ll be alright.”
In that last stretch of a Game 7, the Lakers were more than alright, and it wasn’t because Bryant was there to close it out. In this final quarter, in this deciding game, the Lakers used their best weapon of all — teamwork. Odom, maligned much of this series for playing below his capabilities, continued to collect rebounds and finish at the rim. Gasol, battling with the likes of Big Baby, Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett, forced himself around the hoop on both ends to either score in the paint or grab rebounds. Derek Fisher, 0-8 from downtown in this series, hit yet another timely three to tie the game at 64. Kobe Bryant, after two free throws and a jumper, gave the Lakers a 68-64 lead. Ron Artest, who Phil Jackson considered the most valuable player in this game, continued his excellent play, contributing a three-pointer of his own. And Sasha Vujacic, with seconds left on the clock and a chance to increase his team’s lead, shot two clutch free throws, and gave the Lakers an 83-79 lead — good enough to win another championship.
With 11.7 seconds left on the game clock, Rajon Rondo inbounded the ball to Paul Pierce, who turned around and was met with the bodies of Lamar Odom and Kobe Bryant. Unable to get a shot up himself, Pierce passed to Rondo, who was unable to secure a clear sight of the basket with Odom running towards him, attempted a three pointer anyway and missed. Gasol instantly rebounded the ball, tossed it to Odom, who flung it towards Bryant, who ran the length of the court as time expired.
The late, great John Wooden said that, “Winning takes talent; to repeat takes character.” Character is defined as having qualities of honesty, courage and integrity.
After 2008 in Boston, the Los Angeles Lakers refused to fool themselves into thinking they could get to the pinnacle of the following season by being offensive juggernauts. They knew that merely scoring would not make them champions. They knew that to top every team at the end of the season, they also had to keep their opponents from scoring themselves. They worked hard, despite the many injuries, to do whatever it took to help their team win. They didn’t need pre-game gimmicks, fancy or even dirty play to develop hype or energy to get the victory. They depended on each other for support, relied on their coaches to guide them, and trusted their training staff to take care of them. This is the character of your Los Angeles Lakers. This is the character of a champion.
Pre-Game Thoughts: One and done. Do or die. This is it.
Half-Time Thoughts: Lakers shooting 27%… enough said.
Most Thoughtless Player(s) of the Game: Who could be thoughtless in a Game 7? No one in a Laker or Celtic uniform, but the fans “celebrating” senselessly in Downtown L.A. need a talking-to.
Most Thought-filled Player(s) of the Game: Ron Artest — he said when he joined the team that he should be blamed if the Lakers failed to win another title, but tonight he proved himself invaluable. The defending champions would’ve been lost without his 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 steals.