The Los Angeles Lakers' most satisfying championship in a generation had its foundation in their most humiliating defeat. On June 17 2008, the Boston Celtics embarrassed the Lakers 131-92 in the decisive game of the NBA Finals. The 39-point drubbing was the most decisive in the league's history of championship-clinching games. The Lakers were mocked for being physically soft and mentally weak. They certainly were not possessed of the stern stuff of champions, it was said.
On June 17 2010, the Lakers defeated those same Celtics for a championship by excelling in the very areas where they had so spectacularly failed, two years to the day before -rebounding, defence and composure under pressure. Derek Fisher, the Lakers' veteran guard, said the catastrophic defeat in 2008 led directly to what is now consecutive championships, including the particularly sweet payback victory over the loathed Celtics in Los Angeles on Thursday.
"I think great accomplishments come out of negativity, setbacks, adversity," he said at a press conference. "There are times when you have to be down in order to go back up, and that was a down, low moment for us. "And I think since that moment there's been a greater appreciation for what it takes to be the best and the sacrifice that is required. And the last two seasons there hasn't been anybody better at it than us."
The Lakers' quality showed through this week as they won the final two games of the best-of-seven series, an 89-67 romp in Game 6, and a rally from a 13-point second-half deficit to an 83-79 victory in Game 7. It was not an elegant finale in any sense, not with 98 missed shots. But it was the type of game generally won by the team with more grit, energy and self-belief. The Lakers won all the "effort" statistics in Game 7. They collected 53 rebounds to Boston's 40, including a startling, 23-8 advantage in offensive rebounds. They shot 37 free throws to Boston's 17, an indication that they were the aggressors who attacked the basket instead of hoisting uncontested shots from distance.
And while the Celtics, who started four players on the high side of 30, faded in the end, the Lakers erupted for 30 points in the final 12 minutes after scoring only 53 in the first 36. Their mental toughness was evident in that final quarter, particularly when Fisher bombed in a three-pointer to wipe out the last Boston lead; when the mercurial Ron Artest made a three to give the Lakers a six-point lead with a minute to play; and as the Lakers made 16 of 21 free throws in crunch time.
The Lakers defeated the Orlando Magic in six games to win the 2009 championship, their first with Kobe Bryant as captain. But the embarrassment of 2008 was so intense that the Lakers seemed intent on proving 2008 was the fluke, not 2009, and they received the perfect chance to hammer home that reality by defeating Boston in a series matching teams little changed from two years ago. And for their next trick? A third consecutive championship certainly is a possibility. Bryant and Pau Gasol remain in their primes. Lamar Odom and Artest are signed for years to come. If Andrew Bynum, the young centre, can remain healthy it would require some free-agency-driven gathering of superstars onto one roster to wrest favouritism for the 2011 trophy from the Lakers.
Fisher said the lessons of 2008 will still be in play. "There couldn't have been a more embarrassing loss to have in front of the whole world than that night," he said. "The last two seasons we've tried our best to erase that. Although we never will, winning two championships definitely helps." firstname.lastname@example.org