It’s been 10 years, but I’ll never forget those 10 minutes.
I couldn’t breathe. I had just sat at my press seat near the court at Staples Center and the scene was overwhelming.
It was moments before Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, Lakers versus Boston Celtics, arguably the most pressure-filled sports event in this city’s history, legendary rivals facing off on a Thursday night in the middle of June for one historic moment to decide a championship.
I wasn’t the only one gasping for air.
It was not yet tipoff, but the players were already sweating profusely, the crowd was already roaring, the heat was oppressive. The pressure was visible and tangible and suffocating.
Could the Lakers claim a title over the Celtics for just the third time in a dozen Finals meetings? And could they do it with a team wracked by injury and distraction, a team barely taped together by Kobe Bryant’s will, Derek Fisher’s wisdom and Ron Artest’s wackiness?
For one night, could this mismatched band of defending champions gain revenge for a 2008 Finals embarrassment against the Celtics, beat the only team that truly matters, and become eternal Lakers?
Could Bryant, struggling with a sore finger and bum knee, find his shot? Could Pau Gasol, who had spent most of his career being steamrolled in big games, find his heart?
Could Fisher, an aging leader fighting for a new contract, rediscover his youth? Could Lamar Odom overcome the Kardashian Curse? Would Artest, who wouldn’t become Metta World Peace for another year, show up?
This game marked the end of a tumultuous playoff run in which the Lakers were pushed to six games in two of the three previous series amid a typical Hollywood circus.
They survived the first-round series against Oklahoma City when a Bryant miss was grabbed and laid in by Gasol in Game 6, then clinched the Western Conference finals against Phoenix only after Bryant scored nine points in the last two minutes.
By the time the Finals began, Artest had already made postseason news by tweeting that coach Phil Jackson needed to “close his yapper,” while Bryant was in the headlines for posing in various odd white apparel — including a shawl — for a horrific photo shoot in the L.A. Times Sunday magazine. And, oh yeah, Andrew Bynum had been playing with a torn meniscus in his right knee since the first round.
This was one strange, staggered team that always seemed on the verge of collapse. They didn’t possess the greatness of the teams that won three titles with Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. They didn’t have the freshness of Bryant’s first non-Shaq title win over Orlando the previous season. They were defending champions who were always on the defensive. They were marked by Bryant’s sarcasm, Gasol’s quiet stewing and Fisher’s constant attempts to make peace.
“We’ll see how much we matured,” said Bryant before the Finals. “[The Celtics] challenged us two years ago … now it’s a test to see how much we’ve grown.”
As I finally found my breath before Game 7, I thought about the prescience of Bryant’s statement. This Finals series had indeed been the ultimate test.
Game 1: The Tackle
In the first minute of the opener at Staples Center, Artest tackled Paul Pierce, literally locking arms with him and wrestling him to the ground. It was the hit that set the tone for the next two weeks. The Lakers were determined they weren’t going to be pushed around like in 2008.
They bullied their way to a 13-point victory while holding the Celtics to zero — zero! — second-chance points. In the quiet of the Celtics locker room afterward, amid the trappings of their postgame buffet, I spotted an appropriate container.
It was filled with spinach.
Game 2: The Dribble
Once again, Artest took the game into his hands. Only this time, he squeezed the life out of it.
Amid a late 16-4 run by the Celtics, Artest thwarted any Laker chance by dribbling the ball for an entire possession before throwing up a brick.
“It’s one of the more unusual sequences I’ve ever witnessed,” said Jackson after the Celtics’ nine-point win.
It was a play that explained the consistent postseason chant that shamelessly filled Staples Center every time Artest was holding the ball and preparing to shoot.
“No! No! No!”
Game 3: The Drive
Fisher is better known for “point four,” but more enduring was the play that could be called, “point made.”
Fighting to prove to the Lakers that he still had value at age 35, Fisher provided the dagger in the Lakers’ seven-point win by driving the length of the court to score on a layup despite being knocked down by three Celtics.
“They swallowed him up, but he came out huge,” said Luke Walton.
Fisher was so overwhelmed by the monumental moment that during a nationally televised postgame interview, he fought back tears.
“I’m sorry to get emotional,” he said. “I love helping my team win.”
His shot proved that. While Bryant was easily this team’s best player, Fisher was its heartbeat. The kid from the first three titles had gone away, come back and grown into The Man.
“Our captain,” said Jordan Farmar. “Our leader.”
Game 4: The Disappearance
Shortly before the start of the season, sixth-man Lamar Odom was involved in a transaction that appeared to affect him throughout the year and perhaps lead to a weary Finals performance.
He married Khloe Kardashian.
Their relationship thrust him into a spotlight that blistered him. His appearances on “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” portrayed him as the butt of family jokes. The cameras followed him everywhere and wore him down.
He wasn’t having a great Finals anyway, but then, in Game 4, the Kardashian Curse struck hardest when Odom aimlessly wandered around while guarding Glen Davis with the Lakers leading by two at the start of the fourth quarter. Davis scored seven points in less than four minutes and the Celtics powered to a seven-point victory.
“I thought Lamar was going to kind of sit this one out,” said Jackson afterward, and the circus rolled on.
Game 5: The Swagger
The day before Game 5, I followed Bryant down the hallway after his media session at TD Garden and politely asked why he had not yet made his mark on the series. His numbers were decent, but his impact had been minimal.
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked him. “You’ve been acting strange the entire Finals. You look hurt. You look like you’re not having any fun and you look like you can’t close games.”
He snapped back, saying, “You know me better than to ask me those questions.”
He said he wasn’t hurt. He said he was having trouble being quadruple-teamed. But he said he wasn’t done.
“They think I can’t do this for two more wins?” he said, and then he laughed.
The next day he scored 19 points in the third quarter, yet a one-legged Bynum was overwhelmed inside, Gasol was dominated by Kevin Garnett and the Celtics won by six points to take a three-games-to-two lead and put the Lakers on the brink.
Still, afterward, Bryant continued to swagger, sarcastically laughing and saying, “I’m not very confident at all.”
He knew. Somehow he just knew.
Game 6: The Dive
Midway through the second quarter of this backs-to-the-wall game, Farmar put his body on the floor. He grabbed a loose ball from Rajon Rondo and flipped it to Bryant, who eventually converted two free throws.
The message was delivered. The Lakers were going to sacrifice everything to win this game. And so they did, by 22 points, to set up the ultimate Game 7.
”The ball is on the floor, it’s the Finals, you go get it,” said Farmar afterward. “Yeah, I’ve got burns on my body, blisters on my hand, but that’s how you’re supposed to feel.”
Some Celtics fans will point to a different Game 6 turning point, when tough guy Kendrick Perkins went down with a knee injury in the first quarter and was lost for the series. Some fans will claim their beloved Celtics would have won one of those final two games and the title if Perkins were healthy.
Don’t buy it. Perkins averaged six points and six rebounds in his six games in the series. He was powerful, he was glue, but he could not have saved them, not at Staples Center, and not against a messy team that finally became magnificent.
Game 7: The Champions
This was a game that lived up to the gasping.
The Celtics led by 13 midway through the third quarter. The Celtics still led by three with 6:29 left in the fourth quarter.
Bryant was awful, the moment appearing too big for even him. Most of the rest of the Lakers were tight. Only one man seemed to embrace the magnitude, perhaps because he was completely oblivious to it.
The Game 7 hero was … Ron Artest?
Believe it. He had 20 points, five rebounds, five steals and was everywhere. He kept them close enough for Fisher to make a three-pointer to tie the score midway through the fourth, then for Bryant to finally come alive with 10 points on eight free throws in the quarter to close it.
And, yes, Artest provided the dagger, those chants of “No! No! No!” instantly becoming “Yes!” when he sank a three-pointer with 1:01 left to clinch an 83-79 victory.
It was a giant splash of an ending to this wild ride, with Artest later thanking his psychiatrist on national television before bringing eight family members with him to the postgame news conference podium and shouting, “Acknowledge me, acknowledge me!”
It was the 10th and final championship for owner Jerry Buss, who said, “We wanted it more.”
It was the fifth and greatest championship for Bryant, who later acknowledged he was also thrilled because, “Just got one more than Shaq.”
Bryant ended the game by climbing onto the scorer’s table and thrusting his arms in the air while confetti swirled around him.
That should be his statue, the 2010 title forever in bronze, his resilience forever unwavering, a monument to the imperfect, perfect champions.