It was the ugliest game of the 2010 NBA Finals. But the last two minutes were positively exciting and the result, absolutely superb.
Two heavyweights slugging it out in the 15th round of the World Championship, e ach one throwing his most powerful punches. In this case, the heavy hits were a barrage of three-point shots back and forth.
But neither champion could land a knockout blow. In the end, it was two free throws by a player who had sat on the bench the entire game that sealed the victory.
He entered with just 13 seconds left to take an inbounds pass. He was fouled the instant he caught the ball and stepped to the line.
He took one dribble and calmly shot the first free throw. Nothing but net. 82-79. He took another dribble, put up the second free throw and...redemption!
With those two free throws by Slovenian reserve Sasha Vujacic, the Los Angeles Lakers had redeemed their season, enhanced their championship legacy, and, most of all, recaptured their pride with an 83-79 victory over their archrival, the Boston Celtics, in Game Seven of the NBA Finals.
It was a battle back and forth, from Game One to Game Seven. However, the first six games were either blowouts or decisive victories. There were no nip-and-tuck, down-to-the-wire nail-biters until this one.
It was the kind of series that both teams deserved to win—you felt bad that one had to lose. But that is why these series are played.
Maybe in some parallel universe next to ours, it was the Celtics who came away with a four-point victory. If so, I hope it was in overtime, which is the only thing this series lacked.
For a few heart-stopping moments in the final quarter, it seemed as though that was where this game was headed.
If the Celtics had won, they would have kept their own perfect Game Seven record intact at 8-0, and they would have spoiled Phil Jackson’s perfect streak of 47 victories in playoff series after his team wins Game One.
They would have extended the Lakers' losing streak in Game Sevens against the Celtics to 5-0. But, more importantly, they would have smudged the legacies of Jackson and Kobe Bryant, both of whom would have been 0-2 against Doc Rivers’ Celtics.
But none of that happened. The Lakers somehow prevailed in a game in which they played not only by NBA rules, but also by Murphy’s Law: if anything could go wrong, it would.
And it did. Right from the start. But that is what redemption is all about, and that is what makes it so sweet.
Redemption is not merely about succeeding. It’s about triumphing over failure. And often miserable failure at that, like the 2008 NBA Finals and, in particular, the crushing defeat in Game Six.
It’s about playing your best game of the series two nights before, then coming back and playing not only your worst game of the series but of the entire playoffs—in this, the final and deciding match in front of your own fans.
Down by 13 points four minutes into the third quarter, you somehow find a way to overcome your blunders and will yourself to grind it out.
It’s your two best players going a combined six-for-26 in the first half but still finding a way to stop your archrivals from stomping on your throat.
It’s the unlikeliest player stepping up and keeping your team in the game. That’s what redemption is about. Unlikely heroes and unlikely goats finding a way to overcome adversity.
In the first half, Bryant and Pau Gasol were the unlikely goats with their horrific shooting. But the unlikely hero, Ron Artest, scored 14 points and forced three steals by halftime that kept the Lakers close, 40-34.
Things got worse before they got better in the second half, and the Lakers found themselves down 49-36 at the 8:15 mark in the third quarter.
With all those records on the line as well as their legacy, they found themselves having to do something they had not done very well all season: come back from a double-digit deficit.
Gasol would suck it up and stand his ground in the post. Bryant, meanwhile, found other ways to contribute: grabbing rebounds and sinking free throws.
In the end, Gasol wound up with 19 points and 18 rebounds. Bryant, who was just six-for-24 from the field, pulled down 15 rebounds and made 11-of-15 free throws.
But it was Ron Artest’s 20 points, five rebounds and five steals—plus his splendid defensive work during the entire series on the Celtics’ Paul Pierce—that clinched the victory and the NBA Championship.
"Ron Artest was the most valuable player tonight," Jackson said after the game. "He brought life to our team, he brought life to the crowd."
For Ron Artest, the victory was a redemption not only for a season that saw him constantly compared to Trevor Ariza, whom he replaced in a free agent swap with Houston, but for an entire career marred by that fateful night at the Palace in Auburn Hills back in 2004.
Sasha Vujacic, with his two clutch free throws, redeemed himself for his immature outburst against fellow Slovenian Goran Dragic, that could have cost the Lakers the Western Conference Finals series against the Phoenix Suns.
Gasol redeemed himself in the final quarter of Thursday’s game, overcoming and putting to rest the “Ga-Soft” label he had unjustly acquired back in the 2008 NBA Finals.
"We fought extremely hard," Gasol said, his seven-foot-one frame soaked in sweat and champagne. "We kept our minds and our hearts into the game at all times and we hustled."
Perhaps the greatest redemption of all on Thursday night was Bryant’s. If the Lakers had gone down in defeat, Bryant might have had to wear the “choke” label for the rest of his career.
The star remarked that he was out of gas. “My tank was on E. The more I tried to push, the more it kept getting away from me."
And it almost did. But he found other ways to redeem himself by grabbing rebounds, sinking key free throws when it counted, and, above all, trusting his teammates.
Even though he did not play that much in the final two games, Andrew Bynum found redemption by just ignoring the pain and playing pretty much on one leg.
He not only redeemed himself with the fans and his coaches and teammates, but also with his own psyche. For Bynum, this series was a rite of passage from youth to manhood.
Jackson, who really didn’t need to redeem himself, did so anyway by beating Doc Rivers at his own game: adjustments. Jackson showed everyone that he knows how to tweak when it’s absolutely necessary.
Speaking of Doc Rivers, I want to commend him and his Celtics on a tough, tightly-contested series that could have gone either way. They fought the good fight and can take extreme pride in their effort.
Doc Rivers called his guys “crazy close.” That comaraderie clearly leaves an impact. "We're not going to be the same team next year," he said. "Guys are not going to be there, so that was tough for me. But again, I was just proud.
And rightfully so.
Finally, you, the Lakers faithful, have been redeemed from living in the shadows of the Boston Celtics and their fans, a franchise that has dominated the Lakers when it comes to head-to-head match-ups in the NBA Finals.
But what about your very own redemption? What can you learn about yourself from this series and that memorable Game Seven and the feeling you had afterward?
Redemption does not only happen in sports. They can occur in our daily lives. They are opportunities to overcome our deepest fears and exorcise our demons. They make us what we are.
We no longer need to be ashamed of or burdened by our failures, no matter how numerous or deep they may be. That only makes our redemption that much sweeter.
Like Gasol advises: keep your minds and hearts into the game at all times. That’s the key to the biggest game of all: life itself.
Even if yours may not be going so well, take heed of how Jackson summed up the Lakers’ efforts in Game Seven: "It wasn't well done, but it was done. And we did it with perseverance."
Perseverance: the key to redemption.