LOS ANGELES — Purple and gold confetti raining down upon him, Kobe Bryant hopped up on the scorer’s table, shook his fists and extended five fingers.
When he hopped down, Boston’s legendary Hall of Fame centre Bill Russell was waiting to shake his hand.
A Game 7 classic — and this time, it finally went the Lakers’ way.
Bryant, the finals MVP, scored 23 points despite 6-of-24 shooting, and the Lakers won their 16th NBA championship Thursday night, dramatically rallying from a fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Celtics 83-79 in Game 7 of the NBA finals.
Bryant earned his fifth title with the Lakers, who repeated as NBA champions for the first time since winning three straight from 2000-02. Coach Phil Jackson added his 11th, matching Russell’s total and possibly putting a cap on his remarkable career if he decides to leave the Lakers.
“This one is by far the sweetest, because it’s them,” Bryant said after the Lakers beat Boston for the first time in a Game 7. “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.”
Ron Artest added 20 points for the Lakers, who didn’t exactly show a champion’s poise while making just 21 shots in the first three quarters, even hovering around 50 per cent at the free throw line. Los Angeles finished with just 32.5 per cent shooting.
Yet with Bryant driving the lane to earn eight free throws and Pau Gasol finally coming alive with nine of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, Los Angeles reclaimed the lead midway through and hung on with a few more big shots from Gasol, who had 18 rebounds, and a remarkable clutch performance by Artest, a first-time champion as the only newcomer to last season’s roster.
“I had 20 points, and I still think we did this as a team,” Artest said. “We fought together. This was one of the best games in, I don’t even know, man. I don’t want to be in a game like this, where the game can go either way. ... I’m just like, OK, what did I get myself into?”
He might be into a budding dynasty, with most of the Lakers’ core locked into long-term contracts. With their fifth title in 11 seasons, the Lakers moved one championship behind Boston’s 17 titles for the overall NBA lead.
After downplaying the NBA’s best rivalry for two weeks, Bryant acknowledged this banner will loom just a little larger than the rest in those Staples Center rafters, given the opponent, the Game 7 stakes and the history they just made. The teams have met in 12 NBA finals, but the Lakers won for just the third time.
Jackson won his fifth ring in Los Angeles to go with his half-dozen from Chicago. And it might be the last: Weary of the regular-season grind and facing a likely pay cut with the Lakers, Jackson hasn’t determined his future, though he previously said another title would make him more likely to chase an unprecedented fourth threepeat next season, when he’ll be 65.
“I’ve got to take a deep breath. I’ve got to take some time to think about this,” Jackson said, wearing a satisfied grin underneath his championship hat. “This was great. I’ll wait to make that decision in a week.”
With his hands already full, maybe Jackson will follow Russell’s lead and put that 11th championship ring on a chain around his neck — and Bryant isn’t likely to settle for just one handful of rings.
He made that clear to his coach.
“He knows how bad I want him back,” Bryant said. “I’ve been openly blunt about how much I want him back.”
Paul Pierce had 18 points and 10 rebounds for the Celtics, who just couldn’t finish the final quarter of a remarkable playoff run after a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference. Kevin Garnett added 17 points and Rasheed Wallace had 11 before tiring while starting in place of injured centre Kendrick Perkins, but Boston flopped in two chances to clinch the series in Los Angeles after winning Game 5 back home.
“Listen, give the Lakers credit,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “They were terrific.”
Rivers knows changes are coming, even saying afterward that the ’10-11 Celtics will be different than the ’09-10 team.
“We were the tightest, most emotional, crazy group I’ve ever been around in my life,” Rivers said, adding that he’ll wait a while before deciding on his oft-speculated future.
He called this team “crazy close” and throughout the playoffs, the Celtics only got closer. Down by 14 in their first playoff game against Miami, they won that night and rode that instant burst of confidence not only past the Heat, but through Cleveland and Orlando in the next two rounds.
“We were scratching and clawing, trying to do everything we could to try to pull this out,” said Ray Allen, who had 13 points on 3-of-14 shooting. “We had an opportunity to win, but it just didn’t go our way down the stretch. I don’t think we ran out of steam. Lady Luck just didn’t bounce in our corner. ... There were a lot of tears, a lot of tears.”
The Celtics were a .500 team for the final two-thirds of the season, prompting many to wonder if they could turn it back on for the playoffs. That question was answered long ago. Yes, they could — and one or two more stops on Thursday, they’d have won an 18th title.
“There’s a lot of crying in that locker-room,” Rivers said. “A lot of people who care. I don’t think there was a dry eye. A lot of hugs, a lot of people feeling awful. That’s a good thing. Showed a lot of people cared.”
The Celtics had never lost a seventh game in the finals. Despite nursing a lead through most of the night while holding the Lakers to ridiculously low shooting percentages until the final minutes, Boston couldn’t close it out on the coast, becoming just the seventh team to blow a 3-2 finals lead after winning Game 5.
The Lakers tied it at 61 on Artest’s three-point play with 7:29 left, and Bryant’s free throws 90 seconds later gave the Lakers their first lead of the second half. The Lakers forged ahead by five points before Bryant and Sasha Vujacic hit free throws in the final seconds to keep Los Angeles ahead by at least two points on every possession.
Bryant said he had to downplay the magnitude of the rivalry during the series, but he came clean on the podium with his daughters, Natalia and Gianna.
“I was just lying to you guys,” Bryant said. “When you’re in the moment, you have to suppress that ... but you guys know what a student I am of the game. I know every series the Lakers have played in, and I know every Celtics series. I know every statistic. It meant the world to me, but I couldn’t focus on that. I had to focus on playing.”
Bryant wasn’t at his best in Game 7, saying he “was on E ... really, really tired” after 23 playoff games with a litany of injuries. Didn’t matter — he still captured the finals MVP award, after averaging 28.6 points in the series.
He’s won three straight crowns before, and is already eyeing another three-peat try.
“Let’s go for it again,” Bryant said, moments before hoisting the finals MVP trophy.
The Lakers will hold a parade Monday, with the team riding floats from Staples Center down Figueroa Street to the USC campus in downtown Los Angeles. A rally at the Coliseum last year attracted 95,000 fans, but the Lakers are skipping the arena in favour of a more interactive celebration, the team said.
Exactly two years to the day after Boston beat the Lakers by 39 points to clinch the 2008 title, Los Angeles got revenge for perhaps the most embarrassing loss of Bryant’s career — even if he did little more than grab 15 rebounds for most of the night.
The Celtics had much more poise from the opening tip in Game 7, playing vicious defence that forced Los Angeles to miss 21 of its first 27 shots. Bryant and Gasol were a combined 6 for 26 in the first half.
But forget how it looked early on, because history will. Bryant even did something Jerry West and Magic Johnson never could: He beat the hated Celtics in Game 7 of the finals.
The Lakers are the first team to rally from a 3-2 deficit to win a finals since Houston did it in 1994, beating the New York Knicks. Although Los Angeles stumbled to the brink of elimination for the first time in these playoffs last weekend in Boston, Bryant’s teams still are spectacular finishers: They’ve closed out their playoff opponents on the first try 10 times while winning three straight Western Conference titles over the last three years.
NOTES: Home teams improved to 14-3 in Game 7 in the finals. No road team has won a title in Game 7 since 1978. ... The Lakers are 14-1 in a seventh game at home, losing only the 1969 finale to Boston. ... Garnett nearly flattened Jack Nicholson when he chased a loose ball into the front row in the second quarter, but the Lakers’ most famous fan got back up smiling. Other fans near courtside included Jake Gyllenhaal, Kirsten Dunst, Ryan Seacrest, Timbaland, director Todd Phillips and George Lopez in purple-and-yellow plaid pants.