LOS ANGELES // Kobe Bryant sprinted after the ball that Lamar Odom had joyously flung downcourt to burn the remaining seconds in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. While the celebration started behind him, Bryant chased it down and then held it aloft for his teammates.
His legs were dead. The Los Angeles Lakers' 16th championship was secure in a gritty, 83-79 victory over the Boston Celtics. And Bryant, the Finals MVP for a second time, still would not stop running until the buzzer. He now has a championship ring for every finger on one hand precisely because he never slows down. Even with injuries, the Celtics' defence and his own erratic shot conspiring against him.
That is why this ring will have a special place in his collection, and this championship banner in the Staples Center rafters will loom a little larger than the rest. "I wanted it so, so bad," Bryant said. "On top of that, I was on E (empty). Man, I was really, really tired, and the more I tried to push, the more it kept getting away from me." Out of an unsightly six-for-24 shooting performance, Bryant led the Lakers to a sweet championship repeat with 23 points and 15 rebounds on Thursday night. While he could barely make a shot or even hold onto the ball at times, Bryant relentlessly drove the lane to earn nine free throws in the fourth quarter as Los Angeles finished erasing a 13-point second-half deficit.
The Lakers earned their rings by winning a Game 7 over the Celtics for the first time in five attempts, dating back to 1962. "This one is by far the sweetest, because it's them," Bryant said of the Celtics. "This was the hardest one 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." While the basketball in Game 7 was not attractive, as evidenced by the Lakers' 32.5 per cent shooting and 12 missed free throws alongside the Celtics' 15 turnovers and 53-40 rebounding disadvantage, the teams' collective will and determination were stirring.
The Lakers' coach, Phil Jackson, also has his 11th championship, two more than the late Red Auerbach won with Boston, and possibly putting a cap on Jackson's remarkable career if he decides to leave the Lakers. Jackson presumably will have trouble walking away from the chance for the fourth coaching "threepeat" of his career. "Well, it's done. It wasn't well done, but it was done," Jackson said. "I thought our defence was terrific. We were able to step in and play the kind of defence that we've established as a calling card for this team, and we found a way to generate some points."
Bryant said he had to downplay the magnitude of the rivalry during the series. "I had to focus on playing," he said. And when Bryant was asked what the title means to him personally, he answered without self-censorship: "Just got one more than Shaq. You can take that to the bank. You know how I am. I don't forget anything." As if any NBA fan could forget, Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant teamed up for three titles from 2000/02, with O'Neal winning his fourth in 2006 with Miami.
The Lakers' last two belong to Bryant and Pau Gasol, who had 19 points and 18 rebounds after a slow start in Game 7. Ron Artest added 20 points for the Lakers, who did not exactly show a champion's poise while making just 21 shots in the first three quarters and hovering around 50 per cent at the free-throw line. Yet the Lakers' defence slowed Rajon Rondo and the Celtics' offence to a trickle in the fourth quarter. Los Angeles reclaimed the lead midway through and hung on with a few more big shots from Gasol, who had nine points in the period, and a clutch performance by Artest, a first-time champion as the only newcomer to the season's roster.
With their fifth title in 11 seasons, the Lakers moved one championship behind Boston's 17 titles for the NBA lead. Paul Pierce had 18 points and 10 rebounds for the Celtics, who could not finish the final quarter of a remarkable play-off run after a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference. Kevin Garnett scored 17 points and Rasheed Wallace had 11 before tiring while starting in place of Kendrick Perkins, the injured centre. Boston flopped in two chances to clinch the series in Los Angeles after winning Game 5 back home.
In seven previous appearances, the Celtics had never lost a Game 7 in the Finals. Boston could not close it out in Los Angeles, however, becoming just the seventh team to blow a 3-2 Finals lead.