LOS ANGELES – Back at home, back among the beautiful people, these were the Los Angeles Lakers everyone had waited to see. Kobe Bryant(notes) knifed into the heart of the Boston Celtics' defense. Andrew Bynum(notes) threw back a Kevin Garnett(notes) shot. Jordan Farmar(notes) went to the floor to bat the ball into Bryant's hands.
Ron Artest(notes) even made a few shots, and, yes, this was as good as good gets. The Lakers pushed the Celtics and these NBA Finals to a deciding seventh game, and they did so collectively. Finally, they played as a team.
Now, they just need to do it again.
The Lakers did more than extend their season with their 89-67 rout in Game 6. They reminded themselves just how good they can be when they play this urgent, this united.
For these Lakers, trust is a two-way road, one often filled with gaping potholes. Kobe can blast his teammates in a moment of rage for a listless performance two nights earlier, but he also knows he needs them. With the Lakers' season hanging in the balance, he showed up for work as loose and cool as ever. Don't expect that to change on Thursday. He doesn't want to hear about history or legacies or how the Celtics and Lakers have delivered the NBA its dream Game 7. He just wants one more win.
''I know what's at stake,'' he said, ''but I'm not tripping.''
Kobe pulled back just enough on Tuesday to allow his teammates to give him a reason to believe in them. He knows he can't beat these Celtics alone. One quarter in Game 5 proved that. Phil Jackson predicted the Lakers would need more ''team play'' to win, and Kobe delivered it. He made shots when needed, but the ball still moved from one side of the court to the other with Pau Gasol(notes) acting equally as a facilitator.
''I think most people assumed that Kobe would come out and take 1,000 shots, and I thought he did the exact opposite,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. ''I thought he came out and trusted his teammates. … I thought they just showed great trust. And the more they got it going, the more everybody got involved.''
Lamar Odom(notes) and Artest joined in, and rarely, if ever, this season have the Lakers looked so dominant. Aware that Artest was dangerously close to wandering off again into the abyss, Jackson involved him in the offense, putting him in positions where he could get some shots in rhythm so he wouldn't have to react to his teammates.
''I was surprised they called a play for me,'' Artest said. ''That's something I didn't get the whole season.''
Artest smiled. This was certainly better than two nights earlier when he looked lost, disconnected. Nearly all of them did. Kobe took it upon himself to bring them back after they failed to engage themselves, and that was exactly what the Celtics wanted.
The Lakers have been frontrunners for so long in these playoffs that it's easy to forget – maybe even for them – that they also know how to make a stand when pressed. They did it last season with a Game 7 against the Houston Rockets and a Game 6 against the Denver Nuggets. They did the same in these playoffs with Game 5s against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Phoenix Suns.
Still, this group of Lakers hadn't faced anything like Tuesday. Last season's Rockets were overachievers and they knew it. These Celtics don't just measure themselves as the Lakers' equals, they believe they're better. This called for a desperate performance, and the Lakers gave one. For much of the series, L.A.'s bench had contributed little, but there was Farmar poking the ball away, running it down, diving and knocking it across the floor to Kobe.
''I just think there was an assertiveness and aggressiveness that fed into our team,'' Fisher said.
Farmar had a couple of floor burns and a blister on his hand to show for it afterward. ''This,'' he said, ''is how it's supposed to feel at the end of Game 6.''
Game 7 should bring only more of the same. The Celtics likely will be without Kendrick Perkins(notes), but the Lakers can't allow themselves to drift. They can't forget what brought them here. They can't expect Kobe to play the hero.
''It won't be about individual performances,'' Fisher said. ''It will be about which team is best.''
One game, one more chance to unite.