Lakers have known 7th heaven . . . and its opposite

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The Lakers know Game 7s, whether painful or prolific.

Do they ever.

There have been 24 of them in Lakers history, the latest taking place Saturday against the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center.

Their first-round series ended too late for this edition, though the historical odds were in the Lakers’ favor . . . mainly because they weren’t playing Boston.

The Lakers were 15-8 in Game 7s before Saturday, though only 1-4 against Boston in such showdowns.

The most agonizing Game 7s in Lakers history are easy to pinpoint, primarily because the Celtics are almost always involved.

Perhaps the most infamous was 1969, when the Lakers lost a Game 7 at home for the first time, ultimately fumbling a 3-2 series lead and preventing the release of a squadron of balloons from the ceiling of the Forum ordered ahead of time by Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke.

Their Game 7 bubble was also burst by the Celtics in the 1962, 1966 and 1984 NBA Finals.

The 1984 series might have produced the most memories. Kurt Rambis was clotheslined by Kevin McHale, almost sparking a Game 4 melee. The Boston Garden was a sauna for Game 5 and again in Game 7, reaching 91 degrees, so the Celtics could neutralize the Lakers’ “Showtime” pace.

“We had to do what we could because we couldn’t keep up with them,” Celtics forward Larry Bird said later. “They were running us out of the building.”

The Lakers’ Game 7 grief hasn’t been only at the hands of Boston.

They lost to St. Louis in the West finals in 1960 and 1961 and also to New York in the infamous Willis Reed game in the 1970 NBA Finals.

On a much smaller scale, the Lakers in 2006 became the eighth team in NBA history to lose a series after leading 3-1, falling to the Phoenix Suns in the first round.

There were plenty of good times too for the Lakers, of course.

Their wildest year of Lucky 7s was 1988, when the Lakers became the first team to win back-to-back championships in 19 years. It was anything but simple.

They won three Game 7s in their playoff run, taking out Utah in the conference semifinals, Dallas in the conference finals and Detroit for the championship.

“It was a huge thing to win back to back,” said Lakers trainer Gary Vitti, who has been with the team since 1984. “But the real feat that year was playing three seven-game series to win the back-to-back.”

They created the backbone of their three-championship run with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal by winning the 2000 West finals in Game 7 against Portland.

The Lakers trailed by 16 in the third quarter, were ignited by a banked three-pointer by Brian Shaw, and delighted when Bryant found O’Neal for an alley-oop dunk.

“When he went to the hole, we caught eye contact and he just threw it up,” O’Neal said.

Said Bryant: “I thought I threw the ball too high. Shaq went up and got it, I was like, ‘Damn!’”

Two years later, they beat Sacramento in the conference finals in overtime, 112-106. It was a Game 7. And it was at Sacramento, where Kings fans always rang cowbells meant for the ears of derisive Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who once referred to the state capital as “cow town” and its residents as “semi-civilized.”

O’Neal had 35 points, Bryant had 30 and the Lakers beat back their talented and antagonistic rival of the early 2000s.

“They felt it was their time,” O’Neal said. “It was not their time.”

More recently, the Lakers’ best Game 7 memory was the 2010 NBA Finals against Boston, when they pushed and pulled their way to an 83-79 victory.

Bryant made only six of 24 shots, but Pau Gasol had 19 points and 18 rebounds as the Lakers won a slow-speed chase.

Metta World Peace, who was Ron Artest back then, had five steals and a key three-pointer with 1:01 to play.

Afterward, Gasol wept openly. Bryant could only grin.

“This one’s by far the sweetest,” he said.