On Top Again

Darius Soriano —  June 18, 2010

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Oh how sweet it is.

The Lakers successfully defended their NBA championship by beating the Celtics 83-79 in an ugly struggle that was also a beautifully triumphant game 7 of the NBA Finals.  And now for the second time in two seasons, the Lakers are the kings of the court, are at the top of the NBA mountain, and have been crowned the champions of the league.  It really does not get any better than this.

But for most of this deciding game, it did not look like it was meant to be.  Physically beat down by an imposing Boston defense, the Lakers struggled to put the ball in the basket on offense and couldn’t stop the Celtics from doing it to them when on defense.  Boston – as they have all Finals – pushed, grabbed, hustled, and fought for every inch of real estate on the hardwood and played at a level befitting of champion.  They imposed their will on the Lakers and forced missed shots and mistakes that hushed the Staples Center crowd and had fans of the defending champs more than just bit concerned.

Early on, Boston just seemed to be the better team that had more control over what needed to be done to win.  They were patient on offense by going to Rasheed Wallace in the post for some nice turn around jumpers and attacking the basket in transition. And on the other end, they played their typical brand of stifling defense by cutting off driving lanes, contesting jumpers, and choking off the ball movement that was so successful for the Lakers only two nights earlier.

And the player that struggled the most in the face of the Celtic defense was Kobe Bryant.  Seemingly forgetting the off the ball work that was so important to his strong game 6, Kobe too frequently attacked off the dribble in isolation against a defense that was tilted completely in his direction.  He consistently dribbled into poor positions on the court and then fired low percentage jumpers that would struggle to go in on his best of nights, but had no chance on this night where his shot was clearly off.  Even his good looks at the basket weren’t dropping as Kobe had what was almost an over-sense of urgency to his game.  Every shot seemed rushed or out of rhythm and his entire demeanor reflected a player that was maybe too into the the game and wanted the win too much.  Qualities that are surely admirable, but also ones that rarely lead to positive actions on the court.

But it wasn’t only Kobe that was shooting poorly.  His 1st lieutenant Pau Gasol was also having a poor shooting night.  Hell bent on attacking the basket as often as possible, Pau just couldn’t seem to get his shots off against the inside length of KG and Rasheed.  It seemed like every other one of his shot attempts was blocked as his forays into the paint for lay ups and jump hooks were all strongly contested by the C’s big men.  And he had just as little success with his mid range jumper as Gasol didn’t connect on a shot outside the paint the entire evening.

But, where the Lakers fell short in knocking down shots they came up big in recovering their misses.  In fact, it was the Lakers ability to gobble up offensive rebounds that even kept this game close.  Because while the C’s were holding the Lakers to sub 30% shooting for most of the evening, they could not secure the defensive rebounds that would have turned this game into a blow out.  Instead, they allowed the Lakers to grab offensive rebounds on missed shot after missed shot and secure the extra possessions that kept the Lakers within striking distance.  On the evening the Lakers grabbed an astounding 23 offensive rebounds (compared to 32 defensive rebounds for Boston) and just beat down Boston on the boards the entire night.  In the end, the Lakers won the rebounding battle 53-40 and considering how important that stat was in this series this was a major factor in determining the winner of the game.  In the wake of this loss, Boston will surely be kicking themselves for not cleaning their defensive glass better.

Boston will also be kicking themselves because of the performance that they allowed from Ron Artest.  Normally, if both Kobe and Pau are having inefficient shooting nights the other team is sure to win the game.  But tonight, Ron wouldn’t allow it.  Tonight, Ron played like the former all-star that was once considered one of the best two way players in the league.  Because not only did Ron play his usual top notch defense on Paul Pierce, but he also brought his offense with him to game 7.  Every which way the ball could be scored, Ron did it.  On one play he got a steal (one of his 5 on the night, by the way) dribbled behind his back and took the ball the distance for a lay up.  On another play, he pinned Pierce under the hoop, grabbed an offensive rebound, and scored on a put back.  In the 4th quarter (when the Lakers were in the middle of making their push and trying to get over the Mt. Everest sized hump of the C’s 3-5 point lead) Ron made a strong cut off of a Gasol post up, received the pass, drew contact, and then finished the lay up with the foul.  But of all his big buckets – and there were several considering how much his scoring kept the Lakers in the game – no shot was bigger than the one that Artest hit with a minute left in the game and the Lakers nursing a 3 point lead.  On the play, Kobe (after drawing a trap at the top of the key) hit Ron with a pass that allowed Artest to step into a three pointer and bury the shot to put the Lakers back up by 6.  On a night where Ron did so many things right that he was easily the player of the game, this shot may have been his biggest contribution.

But, Ron wasn’t alone in playing well.  Sure, I mentioned that Kobe and Pau didn’t shoot well, but they did other things superbly – especially the work they did on the glass.  Those two combined for 34 of the Lakers’ 53 rebounds (19 for Gasol, 15 for Kobe), with Pau collecting 9 offensive boards in the game.  Lamar Odom didn’t have a memorable stat line (7 points, 7 rebounds) but his effort in the 4th quarter made a real difference.  He pushed the ball, attacked the offensive glass, and had two huge put backs that ignited his team and the crowd.  And then there was Fish.  I don’t think it would be a Lakers Finals without a big shot from Derek Fisher.  With the Lakers desperately trying to get over the (aforementioned Mt. Everest sized) hump, it was Fisher that nailed a huge three pointer to tie the game at 64 with a shade over six minutes left in the game.  It was that bucket that got the Lakers going in the fourth quarter and created the momentum that carried them home.  And I haven’t even mentioned the gutty performance from Bynum, the solid minutes from Shannon and Farmar (who gave goose eggs in the scoring department, but played well when called on) or the two free throws that Sasha hit to ice the game in the closing seconds.

And really, that’s the take away from this game.  The Lakers won this title as a team.  On a night when the ball just didn’t want to go in the hoop, the Lakers played fantastic team basketball on defense and did all the little things that a championship team does to win the game.  When things looked as bad as they possibly could (down 13 in the 3rd period), the Lakers stuck together and battled back with the poise and perseverance befitting of a title winner.  When Kobe and Pau couldn’t make a shot, Ron did.  When a big bucket was needed, Fish stepped up.  When the Lakers needed that extra push, it was the fresh legs of Farmar, Shannon, and Sasha that provided that kick.  Everyone played their role; everyone played together to pull out the win.

So, here we are.  The goal for every team is to win the last game of the season and tonight the Lakers did just that.  After 105 games, they are the repeat champions of the NBA.  Let that sink in for a moment.  All through this season we followed this team through the ups and downs.  Through the game winners and the tough losses.  And as hard as it was at times, we tried to enjoy the journey knowing that getting to this point was indeed possible.  And now that it’s done and our faith has been rewarded, nothing could feel better.  Today we celebrate.  The Lakers are on top again.  Say it with me: your Los Angeles Lakers, the 2010 NBA Champions.  Yes indeed.

Darius Soriano

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