By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010; D01
LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant tracked down the basketball before it went out of bounds, cradled it, then stormed up the court looking for someone to hug. Ron Artest jumped into him and bounced off, while Bryant's other teammates surrounded him, patted him on his head and had a long embrace as the celebration began. And for the first time in nearly two weeks, Bryant cracked a smile.
The Los Angeles Lakers had just won their second consecutive NBA championship, and 16th overall, with an 83-79 victory over the Boston Celtics that came in the most improbable fashion -- with Pau Gasol, the usually erratic Artest, and even seldom-used reserve Sasha Vujacic contributing to spare Bryant from an otherwise forgettable performance in Game 7.
With purple and gold confetti and streamers raining on him from the Staples Center rafters, Bryant hopped on the scorer's table, spread out his arms, still holding the ball in the left hand while extended five fingers on his right, to symbolize the number of championships he has won with the Lakers, matching Magic Johnson.
"This win is by far the sweetest because it's against them," Bryant said after winning the first NBA Finals Game 7 of his career. "This was the hardest by far. I wanted it so bad, and sometimes when you want it so bad, it slips away from you. My guys picked me up."
Bryant scored a game-high 23 points, despite missing 18 of his 24 field goal attempts, and had 15 rebounds but the Lakers wouldn't have won if not for Gasol, who had 19 points and 18 rebounds; the unpredictable Artest, who had 20 points and made a critical three-pointer late; or Vujacic, who came off the bench to make to two huge free throws with 11.7 seconds remaining. They also had to come back from a 13-point second-half deficit.
Bryant won the NBA Finals MVP for the second time in a row, accepting the trophy and a handshake from Celtics legend Bill Russell after the Lakers finally won a seventh game over their longtime rival after losing on the previous four occasions, with the last time being 1984.
It was a hard-fought game in which neither team was willing to relent and neither team could pull away. The Lakers won despite shooting just 32.5 percent from the floor.
"Well, it's done. It wasn't well done, but it was done," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said after winning his 11th title, putting him two ahead of Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach. Jackson downplayed the emotional significance of beating a franchise that was also his nemesis as a player with the New York Knicks. But he did intimate that the victory may have pushed him to return for another season. "It does improve my chances," Jackson said.
The Lakers also avenged a six-game loss to the Celtics in 2008 and won a championship at home for the first time since 2000. The previous three titles were won at Philadelphia, New Jersey and Orlando. The victory was exactly two years to the day that the Celtics eviscerated the Lakers by 39 points to claim the franchise's 17th championship. "There couldn't have been a more embarrassing loss to have in front of the whole world than that night," said point guard Derek Fisher, who also won his fifth ring and made a three-pointer to tie the score at 64 in the fourth quarter. "The last two seasons, we've tried our best to erase that, although we never will. But winning two championships definitely helps."
Bryant repeatedly said that he wasn't going to approach Game 7 any differently than any other game that he has played. But it was obvious from the outset that he was a tad out of sorts. He took long three-pointers early in the shot clock and was out of control while trying to get himself free of the Celtics defense. On a play in the first half, Bryant dribbled around in a circle then fell to the ground after batting the ball out of bounds. At times, Bryant appeared to be aiming his shots instead of guiding them in. He made careless turnovers, passes to no one in particular, and even flubbed one rebound off his knee. "I just wanted it so, so bad," Bryant said. "The more I tried to push, the more it kept getting away from me. It was a tough one."
Artest joined the Lakers this offseason, but he was focused on joining the team two years ago, when he approached Bryant after the Lakers had just lost to the Celtics in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Artest told Bryant that he could help him, and after an uneven postseason, he finally delivered, serving as a surprisingly calming influence. He played smothering defense on Celtics swingman Paul Pierce, the 2008 NBA Finals MVP, who was limited to just 18 points on 5-of-15 shooting.
"Ron Artest was the most valuable player tonight," Jackson said. "He brought life to our team, he brought life to the crowd."
And afterward, he brought life to the post-game interview room as he apologized to the Indiana Pacers, the team for which he gained infamy for his involvement in the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Mich. With his family flanked behind him, Artest talked about how he was able to remain calm, with the help of his psychiatrist, and catch a pass from Bryant to make a three-pointer that gave the Lakers a 79-73 lead late.
"You saw a determined Kobe Bryant. He trusted us and made us feel good and he passed me the ball," Artest said of Bryant. "Kobe passed me the ball, and I shot a three. He never passes me the ball."
The Celtics, attempting to become the first team to win a Game 7 on the road since the 1978 Washington Bullets, led 49-36 after Rajon Rondo made a layup early in the third period. But they appeared fatigued down the stretch, with their frontcourt depleted without center Kendrick Perkins, who tore two ligaments in his knee in Game 6. Rasheed Wallace, the only player with experience in Game 7 of the NBA Finals having lost to San Antonio while a member of the Detroit Pistons, started in his place and scored 11 points before fouling out. Kevin Garnett had 17 points and Rondo had 14 points and 10 assists, bringing the Celtics within 81-79 when he buried a three-pointer from the right corner with 13 seconds remaining.
Jackson inserted Vujacic in place of Artest, and the Celtics immediately fouled him. Vujacic made both free throws to secure the win.
"It was a hell of a series, and you know, it was just a tough, tough game for either team to lose," Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said. "But I told my guys after the game I couldn't be more proud of the group. . . . We're not going to be the same team next year. Guys are not going to be there, so that was tough for me."
After the win, Bryant admitted the importance of beating the Celtics after spending so much time denying that it meant anything to him. "I was just lying to you guys," Bryant said. "When you're in the moment, you have to suppress that because you get caught up in the hype and all, you don't really play your best basketball. But I mean, you guys know what a student I am of the game. It meant the world to me."