June 18, 2010
Los Angeles Lakers 83, Boston 79; Lakers win the finals, 4-3
All year long, I kept telling the Lakers how great they were. How they had it in them to not just be another championship contender, another champion, but an all-time team. Even with that bench. Even with Derek Fisher(notes) at point guard. One of the greats, I insisted.
And it just took them so damn long to realize that. And along the way, I remained steadfast. I don't think I was wrong; but I also think I realized something pretty important, as Los Angeles worked its way toward another title. Or, at the very least, I was reminded of something very important.
This is a pretty special league.
The Lakers were played to a hilt by Oklahoma City. Oklahoma City! Think about how recent that actually was! About two months ago I was Toyota Corolla'ing my way back to a hotel room in Milwaukee, fully expecting the Thunder to spend its Friday night pushing Los Angeles to a winner-take-all seventh game. And they nearly did, save for a desperate Pau Gasol(notes) put-back to win it. They nearly pushed the Lakers to where they were on Thursday night.
And the Utah Jazz, I know they're injured every year. But they were without two starters, and still seemed like a threat at times. Then the Suns gave Los Angeles everything it could handle.
Then the Celtics. My lord, the Celtics.
People were flipping coins to determine whether or not they were going to make it out of the first round. They were down 14 in their first game of the playoffs, at home, to Miami. And then they proceeded to down the Heat, decimate the Cleveland Cavaliers franchise, and shock the Orlando Magic before the defending Eastern champs had figured out what hit them.
Then to go seven, with the Lakers? To earn those seven games? To really earn a championship, even if they weren't allowed to take home the trophy?
They deserved to win this game, you know. I don't want to hear about your offensive rebounds or missed open shots or those needless fouls in the fourth quarter. The Celtics earned a championship on Thursday night. They didn't score more points than the Lakers, and they won't be given rings by David Stern next fall, but they earned a championship.
The Lakers earned it as well, even if it took them a while (per team policy) to get their heads on straight and set to outscoring the Celtics in a 48-minute term.
You see, Kobe Bryant(notes) didn't have his finest individual night, as a professional. He missed a ton of shots, which was by and large the going rate for most of his teammates and the Celtics as well, but Kobe's clangs were a bit more worrying. Kind of needless, if we're honest, because these looks were so, so far out. One-on-one forays, bad perimeter looks, and all at once the expected result. He was 6-24 shooting in the biggest game of his life, with four turnovers.
Blame him for that line, but don't go too far with it. Despite Kobe's dour public playoffs persona, he's a glass half-full kind of guy. Why else would he refuse to remember all the bad misses from long range, those contested clangs, and only remember the makes? Choosing one positive mental image over a negative one, even if the negatives hit a whole lot more often than the positive ones, is what keeps him going.
So I'm not going to kill him for having all of these bad shots miss all at once. Sometimes he gets hot, and most of the bad ones go in. Usually a few toss in, even if they shouldn't, but that wasn't the case in Game 7. And it almost cost Los Angeles the title.
Here's what won them the title, though. Eight free throws, from Kobe, in the fourth quarter. A game shifting three-point play, points all taken at the line, and a momentum-shifting line drive jumper just a minute later (his lone make in the fourth quarter). Fifteen rebounds, 11 on the defensive end, starting semi-breaks all game. Standout defense.
And that leadership; because even if his teammates are beyond sick of Kobe's perpetual scowl (and believe me, they are), these Laker teammates wanted badly to do right by Kobe in this series. They really wanted to make him happy.
Do I think this is the best way to go about things? To go about an all-around game? Best way to lead a team? Of course not.
But it worked. Kobe's way worked. Because it's a team game, and players need help. And, boy, did Kobe get some help in Game 7.
Ron Artest(notes), 12 second-half points, 20 overall. Stifling defense on Paul Pierce(notes), without letting his aggression get the best of him to a point where he fouled too much, and took himself out of the game mentally. Cut expertly and into the right spots off of Boston double teams. Yes, Ron Artest moved expertly off the ball. What can I say? Full moon in Queensbridge, tonight.
And Pau Gasol was the rock. Absolutely led them to the title in the fourth quarter. Nine points, six rebounds (half coming on the offensive end), two assists and a block in that span. Killer work. And, as it was all year but wasn't often enough, the Lakers were unceasingly potent when they made a point to find Pau inside, and cut off of him. Why there were so many wasted possessions in this game, this series, and this season with this absolute offensive monster being underutilized, I'll never understand.
But that's where this game takes you. This season was memorable in so many ways, and it doesn't always have to be topped off by Michael Jordan hitting a freeze-frame jumper, or Magic working a baby hook for the win. Sometimes you can get a water pipe bursting, in Memphis. Sometimes Allen Iverson(notes) doesn't really retire even when he does retire, and actually really retire when the team calls it a leave of absence. Often it takes you places on Wednesdays, when you know you should be watching all the other important games, and yet you can't take your eyes off these Rockets.
And sometimes, at the end of your season, with a minute to go in a Game 7, you can watch a 3-point shootout between Rasheed Wallace(notes), Ron Artest and Rajon Rondo(notes) decide the NBA championship.
In the meantime, through all that, you can learn. You can love, hopefully. You can fret, most definitely, but you can also imagine. You can hope. You can get hurt, but you can also appreciate that there's something in your life that means enough to you that it stings when things don't go right. When something's taken from you, in the last second. Even when you're not paying attention. When you come home from a night out, and find out that Greg Oden(notes) won't be back for a year. When you wake up, from a night in, and find out that Andrew Bogut(notes) won't get to play in the playoffs.
Or when you watch your team realize, even in defeat, that it can do this. Even with LeBron preening and your team down 0-1 in the second round, there's that spark. These guys believe they're as good as Cleveland. They're not ready to quit, and therefore, you're not ready to quit.
Or when you get to see your team play the right way, its potential fully realized, even with everyone gunning for the champs. When the ball finally starts moving. When the point guard finally starts hitting shots. When the defense stays where it should. When back-to-back seems matter of fact.
Everyone deserves that turn. Every fan. Every fan should get to feel what those Laker fans inside the Staples Center felt on Thursday night, all clenched fists and hugs to spare and cheeks that hurt from smiling so much. Every fan, of teams 1-through-30, should at least feel a little hope, once a week, that their team can get to the top of that mountain. Something to sustain you, even when the water pipe bursts in Memphis on a Tuesday night, and your team misses the playoffs again.
That's why I do this, you know. I was blessed, in my back pages. Six championships for my hometown team, three before I knew what to do with them, and then another three that I would not let go, even as it was all goin' on. Still have the box scores printed off and in boxes in my parents' house. Still have the tapes. Will always have the memories.
And that glow, that day-after glow that tells you that you just followed a champion for an entire season? I got that, over and over again. And I want everyone to get close to that glow, at some point, which is why I try to spread the word. Which is why I try to get it right. Which is why I follow. And years later in whatever hotel in whatever city and with whatever champion, I get to make each year's winner my own.
Because it reminds me of why I started writing about this game. Face fatigue, from smiling so much. And if I can hook someone to this train, and at some point down the tracks they get to feel that same burn? The good burn? Then I've won a little title of my own.
The Lakers won the big title, on Thursday, and the Celtics weren't far off. They could probably take the Lakers to OT on Sunday, if the league would allow it. Would the league allow it? Would it hurt to ask?
The Lakers won because they have talent. They have size, quickness, great feet and quick hands. Big brains, large cojones.
The Lakers won because they have Pau Gasol, the man who didn't have to become a basketball player to be successful, the man that fills in all the blanks. When you let him.
The Lakers won because of Ron Artest, who shut everyone down when he had to. Sometimes his own team, even.
The Lakers won because they run an offense that boasts infinite options based around slavish devotion to fundamentals.
The Lakers won because of Tex Winter.
The Lakers won because of Phil Jackson's unending patience. His pervasive sense of calm. His ability to deliver when counted on the most.
The Lakers won because of Kobe Bryant, the game's greatest competitor. A man whose love of the game is only matched by his unending desire to succeed, to win, even if he doesn't always go about chasing that W the right way.
The Lakers won because they get to run Kobe, whether he runs hot or cold, for as long as his tired legs would allow. He is an absolute marvel, and it's been my privilege to watch him play.
Above all, the Lakers won because they had the best team in basketball this season.
I'm not sure where I can go beyond that. There's nothing left to watch, and when there's nothing left to watch, there's nothing left for me to write. Just understand, that I understand, what an honor it is for me that you've decided to come along on my little journey toward trying to get it right.
Thanks for reading. Let's do it again next year.