This one is going to haunt Boston Celtics fans for a while.
Going into Game Seven on Thursday night, the Celtics had a million things going against them.
Their starting center, Kendrick Perkins, was out of the game with a knee injury. The C's were playing a Game Seven on the road against a team led by the best player on the planet right now—the same team that had just destroyed Boston two nights ago on the same court.
To top it all off, Boston was forced to rely (heavily) on Rasheed Wallace, who played the regular season as if it was an extension of the preseason and took eight months to get himself into shape.
Then the game started and things started to look up for Boston.
The Celtics came out attacking, something they didn't do in their Game Six blowout loss. Kevin Garnett looked a bit like his 2008 self, blowing by Gasol whenever he saw fit. Rondo was finally making Kobe pay by attacking the basket when Bryant played six feet off of him to roam on defense.
Boston had its first chance to step on L.A.'s throat when it was leading the game by nine points after the first quarter. Instead, the Lakers scored nine unanswered points to tie the game up. Boston kept its composure and still went into the locker room with a six-point lead at the half.
Boston eventually took a 13-point lead in the third quarter, but it was all downhill from there.
From that point on, the Celtics struggled to find a rhythm on offense. Paul Pierce, who usually comes up huge in big playoff games, had a very difficult time freeing himself from Artest. KG was quickly running out of gas. And let's not forget Ray Allen.
He may have just lost his legs after having to check Kobe for seven games, but Allen was never able to get his Game Two magic back. He just missed shots—shots that he normally knocks down. Ironically, this became a problem for all the guys in green.
It wasn't that the Lakers were playing really great defense—it was pretty good, but not great. Boston got the looks at the basket that it wanted, it just could not hit them. That, along with rebounding, should be remembered as the theme of this series.
In every game of the series, the team that won the rebounding battle won the game. On Thursday night, the Lakers not only won the rebounding battle, they absolutely murdered Boston on the offensive glass.
Wallace played a pretty good game, but he's never been a good rebounder. Maybe Perkins meant a little bit more to this team than some thought.
Boston fans will wonder forever whether Perkins' presence would have made a difference. Maybe Boston would have won or maybe they wouldn't have, but this game, like most Game Sevens do, came down to who wanted it more.
Perhaps no one displayed that desire more than Kobe did.
Kobe had one of the worst shooting performances I can remember him having since those disastrous Utah series at the beginning of his career. All series long, he downplayed (and rightfully so) the rivalry with the Boston Celtics.
After the Lakers won, he admitted that it did mean more to beat Boston than it would've any other team. Whether he'll admit it or not, he let that pressure get to him in Game Seven.
Ray Allen's stellar defense obviously had something to do with Kobe's struggles, but he just took some awful shots. Nonetheless, he kept shooting the ball, like all good shooters do when they're struggling.
He still didn't finish with great numbers (and got the Finals MVP that should've gone to Gasol), but he finally started attacking in the fourth quarter and willed his way to a decent game. Bryant didn't have a good game, but he also didn't go into 2006-Game-Seven-against-Phoenix-mode.
Boston outplayed Los Angeles for about three quarters. Injuries are horrible, and Perkins' couldn't have happened at a worse time, but the Celtics have no one to blame but themselves. They let the Lakers beat them at their own game with solid defense and toughness that the Celts didn't show much of in the fourth quarter.
This was probably was also the last chance for these Celtics to get to the Finals. Garnett is clearly on the down side of his career, Ray Allen will be a free agent this summer, and Doc Rivers may or may not be back. Also, Paul Pierce can opt out of his contract and Wallace may or may not retire.
In a postgame interview, Kobe kept saying that he didn't know how the Lakers won that game.
The Boston Celtics will wonder how they lost it for a very long time.