Just after 8 PM PST, it dawned on me. That's when I realized that everyone fully appreciated the stakes of this game, and this series. I'm not talking about just the players, or the coaches, or the analysts. I'm talking about EVERYONE.
With 6.5 minutes left to play, the Boston Celtics had just scored 4 quick points to cut a 26 point lead down to 22. The game was already well into garbage time, which began once Ron Artest and Sasha Vujacic hit back to back 3s (seriously, just read that sentence again) at the end of the 3rd quarter. Boston's mini-run, if you can even call it that, meant nothing. Considering the score, and the amount of time remaining, it was as insignificant as 4 points can be.
Tell that to the Staples Center faithful. With 6.5 minutes left to play, and their team up 22 points, the Staples crowd would normally be halfway to the parking lot. But last night, with the lessons of 2008 still fresh in their mind, every seat was still filled. Actually, that's a lie. None of the seats were filled, because everyone in Staples was standing. Standing and cheering. Not for a Shannon Brown dunk, not for a Ron Artest 3 pointer, and not because Kobe Bryant had made another spectacular play. In response to a 4 point run by the enemy, which barely made a dent in a huge lead, in a game in which the losing coach admits to looking ahead to game 7 in the 3rd quarter, the Staples crowd felt the need to get off their asses and make some noise, halfway through an entire period of garbage time basketball, to pick up their team's dragging feet and give them the energy to finish strong.
Analysis isn't really required for a game like this. Spend as much time as you want talking about the Lakers spectacular defense, how much Kendrick Perkins' injury hurt the Celtics, or how unlikely offensive heroes like Sasha Vujacic and Ron Artest put this game beyond doubt in a hurry. Talk about how Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol controlled this game without overwhelming it, or how Phil Jackson provided his finest actual game plan-type coaching that I've seen in a while. These are all important factors to figuring out how the outcome was obtained, but, outside of the Perkins injury, these factors are all by-products of the mindset brought to this game by every Laker in attendance, both on and off the court.
That mindset could be seen from the opening whistle. It could be seen in Pau Gasol's 6 1st quarter rebounds, and in Kobe's 2 1st quarter steals. It could be seen in broad trends, like the Lakers 50% offensive rebounding rate in the 1st half, or the Celtics 2nd quarter points per possession of 0.57. It could also be seen in individual plays, like Jordan Farmar diving 10 feet to bat a loose ball ahead to Kobe Bryant, or exploding to throw a dunk down over Kevin Garnett. And it could definitely be seen, and heard, in how the crowd responded to these events. Having been at every single game in Los Angeles, the game 6 crowd was superior to the 1st two games in every way. I doubt it would have mattered, the Lakers were winning that game no matter what. But it was also the only truly surprising thing to come out of last night's game.
Every effort provided by a Laker player may have been top end, but we've seen it all before. Ron Artest may not look comfortable in the offense all the time, but it does happen from time to time. We can be surprised that Lamar Odom played well for the first time in a while, but we haven't forgotten that it can happen. Sasha Vujacic hasn't been worthy of the nickname "The Machine" for two years now, but there's a reason that name exists. The crowd? They are the only ones to hit a level I didn't know they had. 18,997 is a number ingrained in my memory, because it is Staples' max capacity for Lakers games, and every Laker game "has" that many people because every game is a sell out. Last night, all 18,997 were present and accounted for.
And Phil Jackson played that crowd like Satchmo played the trumpet. I guess it's idiotic to be surprised when a 10 time champion coach, a nearly unanimous choice, outside of Boston, for the greatest coach in professional basketball history, makes all the right decisions, but PJ's coaching was spectacular in this game. It started with specifically working to get Ron Artest on track offensively in the 1st quarter (listen to Artest's postgame audio for a nice little 45 seconds where he talks about how long it's been since a play has been called for him). It continued with a breakout from Sasha, rewarding PJ for slowly building Sasha a place in the rotation since Game 2 (because he's one of the more effective defenders against Ray Allen that we have). But his finest decision of the night came halfway through the 3rd quarter. After 24 minutes of Laker domination, the 3rd quarter began sloppily for both teams. The energy level of the Lakers, crowd included, was dropping visibly. Phil Jackson called a timeout, and coming out of that timeout, he ran a back door lob from Pau Gasol to Shannon Brown, bringing the crowd right back from 0-60 instantaneously.
Now we've got a game 7, the most incredible event in all of sports. After the game, so much of the questions asked were about what this game will mean to the players, the history of it. It's the Lakers and the Celtics in one game for an NBA championship. You could tell that most of the players were giddy about the thought of it, though it shouldn't surprise you that Kobe was not included in that list. Looking forward and trying to figure that game out is pretty damn foolish in my opinion. If this series has taught us anything, it's that we know nothing about what is to come. There are no precedents. There is no momentum. The only tangible thing we know is that, if Kendrick Perkins does miss Game 7 (as is the prevailing, unconfirmed, rumor), it will be a big blow to the Celtics. Same for Andrew Bynum (who is much more likely to at least play, but his effectiveness can not be counted on) and the Lakers. It sucks that injuries will play such a role in this. Nobody wants to see such a historical event decided by important minutes for Josh Powell and Sheldon Williams.
The Lakers won this game due to a variety of factors, some expected and some surprising, but it all comes back to that moment, halfway through the 4th quarter. The message from that ovation rang out loud and clear. Do not relent. NEVER relent. It's a message every single member of the Laker team must have heard from the coaches and team leaders for 48 straight hours, a message communicated by the play of every single Laker on the court. We finally saw a game in which everyone on the team gave it their absolute all. Who knew that team had 19,000 members. Watching 12 guys come together to give everything they have towards achieving a goal is pretty special to observe. Seeing 19,009 people do it? In this town?
[Updated with audio]