Andrew Bynum popped champagne in the middle of the hallway outside the Lakers locker room.
Ron Artest lost his voice, screaming at the top of his lungs while clutching what the Lakers had worked for all season.
But the moment that may very well stand out was the image of Kobe Bryant circling the court, ball in hand while pointing to the crowd as purple and gold confetti and streamers fell from the Staples Center rafters.
The celebration was just starting as the Lakers gutted out an 83-79 victory over the Celtics Thursday in Game 7 of the NBA Finals to win back-to-back championships and notch the franchise’s 16th title, one shy of tying arch-rival Boston.
“Well, it’s done,” said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who won his 11th title. “It wasn’t well done, but it was done.
“And we did it with perseverance.”
The Lakers have now won their fifth championship in 11 years. Next season they will look to be the first team to 3-peat since they accomplished that feat from 2000-02.
Bryant was named the Finals MVP for the second straight season. Despite struggling in the series finale, he came through when it counted the most. Bryant scored 10 of his game-high 23 points in the final period, which included 8-for-9 from the free-throw line. He also had 15 rebounds.
After the game, Bryant admitted to having pressed too much as he struggled from the field, shooting a postseason-worst 6-for-24 from the field.
“I wanted it so, so bad,” said Bryant, who now joins Laker great Magic Johnson with his fifth ring. “The more I tried to push, the more it kept getting away from me. I’m just glad that my teammates really got us back in the game.”
[pullquoteleft]”I wanted it so, so bad,” said Bryant, who now joins Laker great Magic Johnson with his fifth ring. “The more I tried to push, the more it kept getting away from me. I’m just glad that my teammates really got us back in the game.”[/pullquoteleft]
When asked what this championship meant individually, Bryant had some fun.
“Just got one more than Shaq,” he said. “You can take that to the bank. You know how I am. I don’t forget anything.”
With Bryant struggling, it was the other Lakers who pulled through. Pau Gasol finished with 19 points and 18 rebounds, while Artest came up big with 20 points and five steals and Derek Fisher added 10.
Artest quite possibly played his best game as a Laker. During one stretch in the second quarter, he scored 10 of his team’s 13 points. He had several key defensive stops as well.
“Ron Artest was the most valuable player tonight,” Jackson said. “He brought life to our team, he brought life to the crowd.”
When the Lakers were receiving their 2009 championship rings during the season opener, Artest sat alone in the locker room. Now he has one of his own.
“Unbelievable. Unbelievable,” said Artest as he took a swig of champagne. “When we won, I didn’t know we won.
“I cried earlier before the game. How stupid was that? And then when you win you don’t cry. How dumb is that?”
This championship was especially sweet for the Lakers, who exactly two years ago lost in the 2008 Finals to the Celtics. They also beat Boston for the first time in a Finals Game 7 after losing all four of their previous meetings.
“We learned from the disappointment and the frustration and the anger that came from losing that series,” said Derek Fisher, whose team became just the seventh team ever to face a 3-2 deficit in the Finals and come back to win the final two games.
It wasn’t easy, however.
As a team, the Lakers shot 32.5 percent from the field to the Celtics’ 40.8. Only Fisher shot over 50 percent from the field (4-for-6). They struggled from the line, making 25-for-37, but they made up for it by pulling down 23 offensive rebounds and turning the ball over 11 times to the Celtics’ 15.
The Lakers played from behind for virtually the entire game. They fought back from nine down at the end of the first quarter. Then they scratched back from a 13-point deficit in the third quarter.
And when it came down to the fourth quarter, the game was filled with pressure-packed moments.
“I was nervous as a mother,” Artest said.
Down six with 1:30 left, the Celtics answered with Rasheed Wallace draining a 3-pointer. Then Artest responded with a three. After the make, he blew kisses to the crowd and pointed to the Celtics bench.
“What a perfect time to blow kisses at the crowd,” he said. “What a shot. What a shot. I always wanted to hit a shot like that. That’s why I took that shot.”
Seconds later Ray Allen, who had 13 points on 14 shots, answered from the left corner to cut Los Angeles’ lead to 79-76. Off a Bryant missed 3-pointer, Gasol recorded his ninth — and quite possibly biggest — offensive rebound of the season. The extra opportunity led to Bryant getting fouled, which was Wallace’s sixth of the game. Bryant hit a pair of free throws to give the Lakers an 81-76 lead with 25.7 seconds left in the game.
Out of the timeout Allen had his 3-point attempt deflected, and Rajon Rondo corralled the rebound and sank a triple from the right corner to trim the deficit to 81-79. The Lakers’ Sasha Vujacic checked in and iced the game when he drained a pair of free throws, giving Los Angeles an 83-79 edge with 11.7 seconds. After a missed 3-pointer by Rondo, Gasol chucked the ball up court to Bryant, who then ran the clock out.
Following the loss, the Celtics were emotional.
“Well there’s a lot of crying in our locker room, a lot of people who care,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “I don’t think there was a dry eye. A lot of hugs, a lot of people feeling awful.”
The loss didn’t diminish what this season has meant to Rivers, however.
“It was the craziest, most emotional group I’ve ever coached in my life,” he said. “I told them, they made me reach to places that I never thought I needed to go…so that’s what makes (this loss) tough.”
In the loss, five Celtics finished in double figures. Paul Pierce had a team-high 18 points and Kevin Garnett tallied 17. Rondo finished with 14 points and 10 assists.
Wallace was huge in the absence of Kendrick Perkins, who missed the final game with torn ligaments in his right knee. Wallace, who scored 11 points, had a throwback game, circa 2000 Trailblazer or 2004 Piston. He was working in the post, draining fallaway jumpers and banking in turnarounds.
Despite a balanced attack and leading most of the game, Boston seemingly crumbled down the stretch. They were outscored 30-22 in the final period and couldn’t stop the Lakers without fouling, as evidenced by LA’s 16-for-21 performance from the line in the fourth quarter.
“This is probably one of the hardest feelings I’ve felt in my lifetime,” Allen said.
Before the game, Jackson spoke of how every game has a “moment of truth.” While Artest’s 3-pointer could easily fill that moment, the play that stands out came from Fisher.
With his team struggling to make a basket, Fisher came up with a huge 3-pointer to tie the game at 64-64 with 6:13 left in the game. That basket sparked an 11-0 run and the Lakers never looked back.
“That’s just who he is,” Bryant said. “There’s not enough words of praise that I can use to describe him and how I feel about him.”