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Lakers 83, Celtics 79: L.A. Still Runs the Game

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The title, she has been defended. It took 105 games over nearly eight months, but the Los Angeles Lakers have won their second straight NBA championship and their 16th in franchise history. Their Finals opponents and ancient nemeses, the Boston Celtics, made certain that it didn't come easy. The Celts rallied from a horrific Game Six performance to suffocate the Lakers for well over half of Game Seven, throwing a major scare into all fans of the purple and gold. With a bit over eight minutes left in the third quarter, the Celtics led by 13. To that point, they had allowed the Lakers to score only 36 points all night long. Laker warrior-god Kobe Bryant was suffering through one of his worst-ever playoff outings, and for a while it seemed the team's repeat hopes would sink with him.

What followed were 20 minutes that nobody in Lakerdom will ever forget. With Ron Artest setting a tone of resistance with his ferocious D, the Lakers clamped down on the Celtics with ball pressure and ownership of the boards. Shots finally started falling - from Kobe, from Derek Fisher, from Lamar Odom and Artest, from Pau Gasol on second-chance looks. The Lakers kept hammering away at the Boston lead until it broke apart in the fourth. Exhausted and lacking depth because of the Kendrick Perkins injury, the Celtics couldn't maintain their defensive pressure and started sending the Lakers to the free-throw line. After missing seven of their 16 free-throw attempts through the first three quarters, the Lakers buried 16 of 21 in the final frame to ice the win. 83 to 79 was the final score.

Game Seven was ugly at times. At certain moments the Lakers appeared to be wilting in the June heat. As they've done so often over the past two seasons, though, they marshaled their superior talent, regained their composure and battled until the job got done. Every Laker fan tonight will agree: there's nothing ugly about winning an NBA championship.

As in Game Six on Tuesday night, the Staples crowd was rocking from the outset. The somnolence we've unfortunately grown to expect from Laker ticketholders was a thing of the past, as this evening they brought the noise hard and put the advantage in home-court advantage. For all the talk we've heard in these playoffs about the irrelevance of the regular season, tonight's Game Seven was a strong counterpoint. Because the Celtics half-assed it through good portions of their first 82 games (while the Lakers were half-assing it through slightly smaller portions), the Lakers got to play this deciding game in their own barn, in front of their own fans. The setting proved critical. The noise of the Staples crowd fueled the second-half comeback and infused the Lakers' weary legs with much-needed energy.

What made the comeback necessary was a Laker offense that began Game Seven looking brutally stagnant. In the first quarter, the Lakers struggled to generate good shot attempts and missed the few that came their way. Boston's defensive play was spectacular. Ray Allen especially played excellent man D on Kobe, who shot 1-for-7 in the first period. Which isn't to say Kobe's supporting cast was much better. As a team the Lakers made only six of 27 field-goal attempts in the first quarter. The Celtics, meanwhile, looked like the calmer, more composed team. They moved the ball well on offense, zipping it to the weak side to counter Laker rotations, and rode balanced scoring from their starters and reserve Glen Davis to take a 23-14 lead.

In the second quarter, the Lakers started to get their D in gear. Led by aggressive play from Artest and Odom, they held the Celtics scoreless on their first eight possessions of the period. Rasheed Wallace missed three shots in that stretch, and Boston fell back into their habit of throwing the ball to the wrong team. Artest scored six points in the first five minutes to put the Lakers ahead by a couple. The Lake Show, however, couldn't generate a sustained run. Sheed was playing sound post defense on Pau, and Kobe was growing increasingly frustrated with his inability to score. Ron put up 12 points in the quarter, but teamwide Laker shooting struggles sent the Celtics into the break with a 40-34 lead.

The deficit would've been considerably worse had it not been for the Lakers' success on the offensive glass. All night long they used their superior length to generate second-chance looks. In the first half they rebounded 42% of their own misses for nine second-chance points. Gasol and Artest did most of the damage. This continued down the stretch, as in the second half the Lakers posted an offensive rebounding rate of 43% and eight more second-chance points.

I don't know that you can really pin this on the absence of Perkins. Sheed and Big Baby were actually quite good on the defensive glass. Boston fans should instead point the finger at Kevin Garnett, who pulled in three rebounds in 35 minutes played, and Allen and Rondo. Granted, defensive rebounding isn't the chief responsibility of the latter two, but two defensive rebounds, combined, in 90 minutes of play? When your team's getting destroyed on the glass, that's not good enough.

From the Laker perspective, things looked bleakest at the beginning of the third. The Lakers scored two points on their first five possessions, and it began to seem as if they didn't have enough solutions to Boston's defense. Gradually, however, the Celtics started to wear down. Doc Rivers didn't have the confidence to give major minutes to Tony Allen or Nate Robinson tonight. With Perkins unavailable, that meant Big Baby was the only deployable reserve, which in turn left Rondo, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce to play 45+ minutes apiece. As fatigue set in, their defense slackened. Kobe found a little air space and got some jumpers to fall. Odom crashed the offensive glass for a couple put-backs. Loose balls started to find their way into Laker hands.

The fourth quarter was a tense and breathless ordeal. For a while the teams traded missed shots, the defenses retaining the upper hand in the battle. Slowly but unmistakably, Laker punches began to their marks. Kobe was fouled by Allen on a three-point attempt and drained all three freebies. Ron drew a shooting foul from Pierce and converted the and-1. When Fish hit a three to tie the game at 64 with 6:11 left, the building exploded and you could feel the Celtics starting to crack. In the final six minutes alone, the Lakers attempted 14 free throws and made 12 of them. The last two were drained by none other than Sasha Vujacic, inserted into the contest with 0:13 on the clock for just that purpose. Late, desperation threes by Sheed, Allen and Rondo kept it tight until the final possessions, but in the late moments the Celtics just couldn't get the necessary stops.

Kobe, it must be said, had a pretty awful game offensively. To get his 23 points, he took 31 shots (using the term shots to include free-throw possessions) and committed four turnovers. It won't go down as one of his better playoff moments. That said, he played strong D all night and was a demon on the boards, notching 15 rebounds. For his overall series-long contributions, he was justly named Finals MVP.

The singular hero of Game Seven, however, was Ron Artest. He scored 20 points on 20 shots, which doesn't sound terribly efficient, but in a game when neither team cracked a point per possession, he was one of the more potent offensive options. He also racked up five steals, harassed Paul Pierce constantly and never let his energy flag despite playing 46 minutes. It was a resounding triumph for the favorite son of Queensbridge, not to mention sweet vindication for Mitch Kupchak, who made the controversial decision to replace Trevor Ariza with Ron-Ron. The debate over that offseason move is now closed. The 16th banner that will soon hang at Staples Center is the final word.

Tonight's a moment of celebration for the city of Los Angeles and for Laker fans everywhere. A long and occasionally trying season has reached a magnificent conclusion. Kobe Bryant has five rings, Phil Jackson 11 and Adam Morrison two. We're all genuinely privileged to be fans of this towering franchise.

Now who's in the mood for a three-peat?











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