The first half of Game 7 of the NBA Finals was hard to watch. The Los Angeles Lakers missed more than 30 shots and shot 26 percent, but climbed within striking distance of the Boston Celtics because of their incredible offensive rebounding. It was hideous basketball.
It wasn’t just that shots clanged constantly. Fundamentally, both teams struggled. Turnovers were committed and poor offensive sets were run. But the defense was incredible. That’s what made the first 24 minutes exciting. It was a brutal battle between the NBA’s best. A battle that would continue to be fought right down to the finish.
Lakers star Kobe Bryant epically struggled in the first two quarters, and would in the final two as well. But, he found a way to impact the game in spite of his offensive woes. He snatched rebounds and played excellent defense. His intensity spread throughout the Staples Center, throughout his team.
The energy the fans and his team possessed incomparable. This was a Game 7 atmosphere. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t shoot or that his teammates and the Celtics followed suit. This was for all the marbles.
Every point was crucial. The Celtics, after leading throughout the first quarter by a respectable margin, took a 13-point lead, 49-36, with a little less than nine minutes left in the third quarter after watching their previous advantage disappear. This gap would close as well.
They started to miss at the rate the Lakers did in the first half, failing to execute inside many times, while Los Angeles’s shots suddenly began to fall with regularity. Missed opportunities to expand their advantage led to a few baskets by Bryant, and a few more by the quartet of Pau Gasol, Ron Artest, Derek Fisher, and Lamar Odom.
Artest was particularly valuable to the Lakers cause. Not only did he shut down whomever he was defending, he hit plenty of big shots, especially late. The Lakers crowd stood for the final quarter and a half. They didn’t care that the score was in the 50′s by the end of the third.
Their team was in it, duking it out with the Eastern Conference’s finest. And they had Kobe Bryant, the best player on the planet ,whom, despite entering the final frame 5-21 from the field, they had an inkling would come up big when it mattered. He did, getting to the free-throw line multiple times to help the Lakers not only stick with the Celtics but take the lead. A jumper increased their slim advantage to 68-64 with under five and a half minutes left, then a free-throw moments later put Los Angeles ahead five.
Yet, though he was extremely important to their fourth quarter success, no one was more valuable than Artest.
When Artest was signed by the Lakers, I didn’t think he would fit at all. He’s always been a great defender, but he has had a knack for taking his team out of games with ill-advised shooting and errors in judgement.
Historically, not a great shooter who entered having struggled in the Finals thus far, to my surprise he managed to deliver. With the Celtics behind by six with a minute and a half remaining, Celtics center Rasheed Wallace nailed a heavily covered three-pointer from the left-wing to cut the deficit in half.
Plenty of time remained, even if Boston was unable to get a defensive stop on the Lakers ensuing possession, but Artest proceeded to make the comeback trail very difficult. Celtics forward Paul Pierce backed off Artest beyond the three-point line on the right-wing, protecting against the drive. The shot-clock was near its end, so Artest launched.
His long-range bomb swished through, sending the crowd into jubilant cheer. Bryant pumped his fist. Artest had made what was a risky signing well worth it. A three-pointer, lengthening the Lakers lead back to six with a minute left.
The Celtics had to score and they did. After struggling for most of the game, Ray “Jesus Shuttlesworth” Allen canned a three-pointer from the left corner, completing the exhilarating display from deep by both teams.
Back and forth: that’s what this game was. But Boston needed a stop if they wanted Game 7 to truly go down to the wire. They forced a miss, as Bryant’s three-pointer shot off the rim.
Yet, they couldn’t corral the rebound, an inability that was the story of their night. Gasol snatched the errant attempt with just under 30 seconds left. It was the Lakers 23rd and final offensive rebound. And, as the board resulted in two free-throws by Bryant, it all but secured victory.
Two unexpected things followed. Celtics guard Rajon Rondo, known as an awful jump-shooter, hit a three-pointer from the right corner to end a hectic possession and pull his team within two.
A foul needed to be committed following the Lakers inbounds, and Boston hoped that whomever was sent to the free-throw line would either miss both or split the pair. They didn’t foul immediately, getting the ball out of Bryant’s hands to foul Sasha Vujacic, a seldom-used guard who I don’t particularly care much for.
I didn’t expect Vujacic, who was inserted solely to deliver from the charity stripe if the opportunity presented itself, to come up clutch, but he did. Both attempts swished through.
He exited, Rondo’s heave fell short, Bryant grabbed the ensuing toss downcourt, thrust his arms into the air, and celebrated as the stadium happily shook. Teammates jumped on him, basking in the fact that Los Angeles had just repeated as NBA Champions.
His ego then made an appearance. He motioned to the crowd by raising a hand into the air, signifying this was his fifth title with the Lakers.
That’s all well and good, but this was Artest’s first. Artest–who thanked everyone from his homies back in Queensbridge to his shrink during his memorable postgame interview . Artest–who hit the Robert Horryesque three-pointer that helped make Kobe’s fifth and the Lakers 17th a joyful reality.