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June 18, 2010
Playoff Prospectus
Champions

by Kevin Pelton

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at L.A. Lakers 83, Boston 79 (L.A. Lakers win series 4-3)
Pace: 82.9
Offensive Ratings: L.A. Lakers 99.1, Boston 96.3

It's funny, in hindsight, to read Henry Abbott's post on TrueHoop about how Phil Jackson and his coaching staff would try to calm their Los Angeles Lakers players ahead of Game Seven of the NBA Finals. Jackson surely tried, but even the Zenmaster's tricks are powerless compared to the meaning of one game to decide the championship.

As it turned out, both the Lakers and the Boston Celtics wanted it a little too much, especially early in the game. The result was palpable tightness on any attempt outside the paint, combined with raging energy on both sides. The first quarter may as well have been sponsored by Red Bull.

As a whole, tape of this game won't be what you'll want to show someone who has never seen the NBA before to convince them this is the world's greatest sport. At the same time, in its own way, Game Seven was a masterpiece. If the execution was lacking, the effort and desire were always there, even at the end of a marathon season that started almost eight months ago and featured more than 100 games for both teams.

The Lakers dug themselves an early hole with their complete inability to make any shots in the first quarter. Boston packed the paint, trying to cover for the absence of Kendrick Perkins and force the Lakers to their weakness, perimeter shooting, and Los Angeles responded by making just one shot longer than 10 feet in the entire period. After the teams traded runs in the second quarter, the Lakers spent more than half the game playing uphill, trying to claw their way back into the lead.

When they finally evened the score, first on a Ron Artest three-point play and then on a Derek Fisher triple, and surged ahead on two Kobe Bryant free throws, it seemed the Lakers might cruise. By that point, the weary Celtics were struggling to get any kind of results out of their offense. But the 2008 champions, who have been so hard to beat throughout this improbable postseason run, found new life, cutting the lead to three on several occasions. Once within a possession, Boston could not get the necessary stop to get the ball back with a chance to tie.

The Lakers kept going to Bryant in isolations, and the Celtics repeatedly ran a second defender at him to get the ball out of his hands. What worked for the Lakers down the stretch was Bryant's ability to find Pau Gasol in those situations. Gasol came up huge in the last five minutes, scoring seven of his 19 points and coming up with a game-turning offensive rebound.

The possession on which Gasol came up with that board, the last bit of half-court offense the Lakers ran before Boston was forced to begin fouling, was one to remember. The Celtics trailed by three after a Ray Allen three-pointer answered one by Artest a moment earlier, yet despite coming off a score Boston got cross-matched as the teams traded ends because Kevin Garnett lingered in the backcourt to apply token pressure. That forced Rajon Rondo to pick up Lamar Odom in the open court.

Just as Jeff Van Gundy observed on the broadcast that Boston was caught with bad matchups, Rondo passed Odom off to Rasheed Wallace while picking up Gasol, who was coming up to screen for Bryant just to the right of the top of the key. Surely, Rondo's thinking was that he could comfortably switch with Allen, defending on the ball. Observing that, Bryant went away from the pick to attempt a three-pointer off the dribble going to the left. It was a bad shot, but with a redeeming quality--it left Gasol headed to the glass with only Rondo to contend with. Gasol grabbed the board and kicked back to Bryant, who attacked the hoop instead of trying to run clock with under 30 seconds remaining. Bryant drew the foul the Celtics would have had to give anyway, made two free throws, and Boston's last best chance to win the game or at least force overtime was gone.

(If I was Rondo, I would have blitzed the ball as the Celtics had been doing previously, allowing Boston's bigs to rotate back into position and leaving Paul Pierce to defend both Artest and Fisher on the weak side. That's easy to say with the benefit of watching several replays, however.)

The fourth quarter as a whole was not a showcase of the Celtics team we've seen all postseason long. Based on the urgency of the moment and the way the Lakers made up ground at the start of the second quarter, Doc Rivers opted to extend the minutes of his starters. Besides for Wallace, Perkins' replacement in the lineup who split time with Glen Davis, none of the other Boston starters rested for more than two minutes after halftime.

The decision was understandable, but it extracted a toll on the Celtics' aging legs. By the middle of the third quarter, their transition game had entirely dried up. Within the half-court offense, Boston got little player or ball movement, relying on Allen curls, isolation plays and the odd pick-and-roll. Allen scored eight points, but the rest of the Big Four were essentially non-factors in the final period, combining for 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting.

At the other end of the floor, the Lakers were living at the line. They reached the bonus by the 6:49 mark of the final quarter, and even if you take out their 4-for-4 shooting in the final minute, the Lakers scored nearly half of their points in the period (12 of 26) from the charity stripe.

Free throws would also boost Bryant's final line, though they couldn't entirely salvage the Finals MVP's evening. Bryant's approach was off in the early going. He forced shots against Celtics double-teams rather than trusting his teammates, and kept attempting difficult shots even when it became clear this wasn't going to be one of those nights (like Game Five) where he hits everything he throws at the basket. By halftime, Bryant was a dismal 3-of-14 from the field.

Bryant wasn't much better from the floor in the second half (3-of-10), but nine free throws helped his scoring total. More important were the passes Bryant did make down the stretch, most of them setting up Gasol but also one that led to Artest's crucial three-pointer with a minute left in the game. Bryant's eagerness to win the game showed up in good and bad ways elsewhere. He grabbed 15 rebounds, one shy of his career high, but gambles on defense helped him pick up four fouls. Ultimately, it was a game as complex as Bryant's legacy.

Bryant's teammates were there to pick him up. The Lakers got an enormous and somewhat unexpected lift from Artest, whose energy was more focused than Bryant's. His 12 second-quarter points helped keep the Lakers in the game during the first half, and Artest came up with two big scores during the fourth quarter. He was also doing yeoman's work defensively against Pierce while adding five steals. Artest has had his ups and downs during the postseason, but in Game Seven he was a deserving champion.

Meanwhile, Gasol may have shed any remaining doubters about his game (and, yes, his toughness) for good. Even on a poor shooting night of his own, he finished with 19 points and 18 rebounds--nine of them offensive. Bryant was deservedly MVP of the series, but Gasol was the most valuable Laker in Game Seven.

We'll give the last word to Artest, who capped his evening with perhaps the most memorable appearances on the postgame dais in NBA history.

"This was one of the best games of I don't even know, man," Artest said, and that about sums up the capper to one of the oddest and most entertaining NBA Finals in recent memory.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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