"Sweet 16": In The End, It's the Lakers
As Lamar Odom brilliantly launched the ball down the Staples Center floor to burn the precious final seconds off of a Game 7 victory, it was out of reach of all except for one: Kobe Bryant. As the buzzer sounded, Bryant clutched the ball and was mobbed by teammates as the clock expired and confetti streamed from the ceiling. After the Lakers' 16th title in franchise history and fifth in eleven years, Bryant called it the toughest of his five rings earned. The exultation showed by the Lakers after a grueling seventh game showed it all too true.
Let’s set the stage: Both teams entered Thursday’s Game 7 with war scars. Andrew Bynum had a torn meniscus and he would be limited at best. Kendrick Perkins was out with two torn knee ligaments suffered in Game 7, giving the Celtics a severe deficiency in the critical frontcourt battle where the team that won the rebounding battle won every game. Rajon Rando sported a bandage on his face after receiving an elbow from Ron Artest in Game 6. The Celtics were entering their fifth all-time Game 7 contest with the Lakers in the NBA Finals, winning the previous four. Everything was set for an epic battle and we got one.
Last night was not a game for offensive aesthetics; it was a knockdown, drag-out defensive battle that each team fought tooth and nail to secure. Despite the shortage of players in the frontcourt, Boston came out scrappy in the first half and stayed with the Lakers on the boards and even lead going into the third quarter by as much as thirteen. However, I think the absence of Perkins contributed towards the Celtics demise in the final quarter where the Lakers grabbed seemingly every loose ball and every rebound. Despite a bad shooting night, Kobe came alive in the fourth quarter finishing with 23 points and an amazing 15 rebounds. Pau Gasol manned the inside with a stalwart 19-point, 18-rebound effort. The biggest heroic effort possibly came from outcast Ron Artest, whose 20 points, great defense all series long and a clutch three-pointer with less than a minute remaining kept the Celtics just out of reach. Artest, who six years ago was suspended for the entire regular season from the “Malice at The Palace” incident in Detroit, finds himself an NBA champion in his 11th season.
Give the Celtics credit: For a team that went .500 (27-27) from Christmas and on, no one in the basketball universe thought that they could get past the Cavaliers and King James. Then, people discounted them against Dwight Howard and the defending Eastern Conference Champion Magic. But, Boston with its creaky legs, but crafty veterans and an opportunistic bench fought through the playoffs and brought the defending champions to the brink. The question for the Celtics is what becomes of the Hall of Fame Trio of Pierce, Allen and Garnett. While retirement may not be in the near future for these three, the possibility of the unit being broken up and the team rebuilt around Rondo is imminent. Doc Rivers remains one of the best coaches in the league and the rebuilding effort will be one of his biggest challenges yet.
As for the champions, the discussion begins: Is this the beginning of another dynasty? Most of the contract is under long-term deals, but it depends upon two parties. The biggest question revolves where now 11-time champion coach Phil Jackson will stay another season with his contract being up. If you’re Jackson, it’s all about whether you wish to coach for more titles or whether you hang it up as the greatest coach of all-time. As for the greatest player in the world, his legacy grows with this latest ring. In a superhuman-like effort despite a bad shooting night, Bryant tossed his name into the discussion along with Jordan, Magic and Bird in the pantheon of greats. At only 31 years old, he has plenty of time to do damage in a career that may have six to seven more years left. At this age, Jordan was retired a first time. And while the comparisons to Jordan will never stop, Bryant in leading the Lakers to yet another title is moving closer to equaling the equivalent of basketball royalty in our time.
By: Brian Cox