Lakers’ championship run was one of their unlikeliest ever
Amid the chaotic state of affairs directly outside Staples Center as a championship was being, uh, celebrated, a black sedan slipped out of the arena’s underbelly and glided toward the madness.
As the car approached a swarm of fans, its brake lights flashed for a few seconds. Then Phil Jackson let loose, honking his horn and reveling in the Lakers’ 16th championship, much to the delight of fans who were able to see through the open window on the driver’s side.
The Lakers might still be celebrating several days after one of their unlikeliest title runs, the team somehow able to shrug off persistent injury questions on top of a 4-7 swoon to end the regular season that acted as a distress flare among the big ships on the NBA sea.
They never caught Cleveland for the league’s best record, finished two games behind Orlando and limped into a first-round series against Oklahoma City that almost broke them.
Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum never went through a full practice after the first round, needing to rest sore right knees that made daily Lakers stories look like medical reports.
Derek Fisher began an eight-week procession in which he faced a rush of top-notch point guards, one after the other, Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams, Steve Nash and Rajon Rondo.
Ron Artest was, well, Ron Artest, somehow acting as both a stopper on defense and, unfortunately for the Lakers, a stopper on offense as well.
And yet, the Lakers persevered thanks to a collection of shots and stats, be it Pau Gasol’s put-back layin with 0.5 of a second left in Game 6 of the first round, Artest’s off-balance follow shot as time expired in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals against Phoenix, or Bryant’s across-the-board excellence with averages of 29.2 points, six rebounds and 5.5 assists this postseason.
As Bryant held the championship trophy and Finals most-valuable-player award above his head, one in each hand, it was difficult not to imagine the collective zeal of the Lakers . . . or was that a sigh of relief?
It had been a long drive, indeed, their final trial coming last Thursday in a Game 7 victory in which they shot 32.5% and trailed by 13 points in the third quarter but still beat Boston, 83-79.
“I think 53 rebounds, 23 offensive rebounds, just tells you how much this team fought to become champions again,” Gasol said.
Gasol, who missed 17 games in the first half of the season because of persistent hamstring injuries, was steady throughout the playoffs, in particular the Finals, averaging 18.6 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocked shots against the always-physical Celtics.
Gasol and Bryant picked at each other mildly near the All-Star break, as Bryant’s shots went up and Gasol’s touches went down, but they certainly acted as one in the playoffs, Bryant definitely noticing Gasol’s near-triple-double in Game 6 of the Finals (17 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists).
“Pau was sensational,” Bryant said.
Artest looked like a failed experiment, a poor substitute for the smooth Trevor Ariza, his inability to grip the triangle offense never more obvious than during a curious clock-draining possession late in Game 2 of the Finals in which he dribbled around the perimeter and down low before settling for an off-balance 21-footer that Jackson called “one of the more unusual sequences I’ve ever witnessed.”
But Artest played solid defense throughout the playoffs and earned his five-year contract in Game 7, collecting five steals and holding up the offense for an entire half as Bryant and Gasol foundered.
Once Monday’s parade completes its course, and the streets are swept clean, the Lakers will face the same question from all their fans: What next?
Time will be the final judge on whether a two-championship run evolves into a dynasty over the next several seasons, but Bryant, Gasol and Artest are signed through 2013-14, a solid start in an NBA landscape that will face much free-agent movement this summer and, more ominously, a potential lockout in 2011-12.
For now, though, there’s joy circling a city with the epicenter in El Segundo.
Or, in a dispatch that popped up on Artest’s Twitter feed at 3:07 a.m. Saturday, “We did it!!” The proclamation was followed at 4:09 a.m. by, quite simply, “So crazy.”
Tough to argue. It was that kind of a season.
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