In May and June of this year, as the Lakers were fighting their way through the minefield of the NBA playoffs and taking plenty of shrapnel in the process, I did some radio spots for sports-talk shows around the country. One question, I recall, kept popping up: are Laker fans getting nervous about the team? I was asked it when the Oklahoma City Thunder tied their first-round series with the Lakers at two games apiece, and again when the Phoenix Suns tied the Western Conference Finals at two games a piece, and then again when the Boston Celtics took Game Two of the NBA Finals at Staples Center to steal home-court advantage. My answer throughout remained the same: though I disclaimed the ability to speak on behalf of Laker fans worldwide, they would not, I sensed, start to get really nervous unless and until their squad trailed in the second half of an elimination game.
Around 8:00 p.m. Pacific time on June 17th, the moment I described came to pass. Game Seven of the Finals began its third quarter with the Celtics leading the Lakers by eight. Not quite four minutes into the period, point guard Rajon Rondo rebounded a Paul Pierce miss and made a driving layup that pushed the Celts' lead to 13. The Lakers had just 36 points on the board at the time, having failed to land a glove on Boston's defense. It wasn't despair, exactly, that started to creep in among Laker fans. More like an overwhelming sense of urgency: we knew the Lakers were the better team, but they had to be 13 points better over the final 20 or so minutes. The comeback, in other words, had to start now.
Which is precisely what happened. Over the last quarter-and-a-half of the NBA season, the Lakers hammered away at the Celtics until they broke apart. Ron Artest sank his teeth into the Celtics with some angry, vicious defense. Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom grappled for second-chance points on the offensive glass. Kobe Bryant forced Boston to send him to the free-throw line over and over down the stretch. Derek Fisher did just what you'd expect, draining a highly pressurized three-pointer with 6:11 in the game to erase the Celtics' lead for good. And of all people, Sasha Vujacic came off the pine with 13 seconds to play to bury a pair of free throws with nearly inhuman nonchalance.
The final score, 83 to 79, tells you what kind of game this was: nasty, tense and violent. The tone was befitting a winner-take-all throwdown between the two Great Power rivals of the basketball world. The championship was the Lakers' 16th as a franchise, bringing them within one of the Celtics' total. It was Phil Jackson's 11th as a coach, putting still more distance between himself and Red Auerbach. And it was the fifth for Kobe and Fish, coming almost 10 years to the date after they won their first.
As with everything involving Kobe Bryant, his performance in Game Seven, and whether he deserved the Finals MVP award he was given, have become topics of bilious and not terribly edifying debate. Regular readers of Bill Simmons' columns can recite from memory Kobe's shooting stats from that night: 6 for 24. Those predisposed to see fault in Kobe's every breath have seized on those numbers as the smoking gun in the case for his irredeemable ball-hoggery. Those in the habit of excusing every last Kobe misfire reply that he was forced into taking so many difficult shots by the failings of his teammates and that he did plenty on defense and on the glass to contribute to the Lakers' win. Who's right? Who's wrong? It doesn't matter. What matters is that both sides have fresh ammunition to fire at each other in the wearisome, never-ending Kobe Wars.
Less contentious is the effect Game Seven had on the public perception of Ron Artest. To that moment, Ron had (largely by his own actions) built a reputation in NBA circles that was part menacing drifter, part dimwitted bully. Many people viewed the Lakers' decision to sign him and to part ways with 2009 playoff hero Trevor Ariza as an arrogant folly. But if there had been an official MVP of Game Seven, it would've had to be Ron. His five steals were crucial to the Lakers' stifling of the Celtics' attack, and his 20 points included a hammer-blow three with just a minute to play that put the purp and yellow up six. When he thanked his psychiatrist in front of a national television audience after the game and then charmed the attendant media with a joyous postgame press conference, his reputation laundering was complete. Ron had finished his deeply improbable transformation into a kooky basketball folk hero.
In a big-picture sense, Game Seven was a repudiation of all the tired criticisms that people make about the NBA. The playoffs are too long? The length of the playoffs allowed the gradual rebirth of the Celtics as a Darwinian death squad, capable of weeding out faux contenders like the Cavaliers and the Magic and standing toe-to-toe with the mighty Lakers. The regular season is meaningless? Losses suffered by the Celts in December and January meant that Game Seven took place at Staples, where universally mocked Angeleno sports fans made themselves heard. NBA players are passionless mercenaries? Check out Andrew Bynum, who risked career and limb to give the Lakers 19 painful minutes on an injured knee that cried out for surgery.
This wasn't just the Game of the Year for the Lakers. It's a strong candidate for Game of the Decade for all of L.A. sports. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm more than up for doing it again in 2011.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.