Kobe Bryant sprinted after the ball, which Lamar Odom joyously flung downcourt to burn the remaining seconds in Game 7 of the NBA finals. With the celebration starting behind him, Bryant chased it down and then held it aloft to his teammates.
The Los Angeles Lakers' 16th championship was secure following a gritty 83-79 victory over the Boston Celtics. Bryant's legs may have been dead, but he didn't stop running until the buzzer.
The two-time finals MVP has a ring for every finger on one hand precisely because he never slows down, even with injuries, the Celtics' defense and his own erratic shot conspiring against him. That's why this ring will have a special place in his collection, and this banner in the Staples Center rafters will loom a little larger than the rest to Kobe.
"I wanted it so, so bad," Bryant said. "On top of that, I was on E. Man, I was really, really tired, and the more I tried to push, the more it kept getting away from me."
Out of an unsightly 6-for-24 shooting performance, Bryant led the Lakers to a sweet repeat with 23 points and 15 rebounds Thursday night. While he could barely make a shot or even hold onto the ball at times, Bryant relentlessly drove the lane to earn nine free throws in the fourth quarter while Los Angeles erased a 13-point second-half deficit.
The Lakers earned their rings by winning a gritty, grind-it-out Game 7 for the first time in their franchises' history.
"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."
While the basketball in Game 7 wasn't terribly attractive, as evidenced by the Lakers' 32.5 percent shooting and 12 missed free throws alongside the Celtics' 15 turnovers and 53-40 rebounding disadvantage, the teams' collective will and determination still were stirring - and they'll only get more beautiful with age.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson also has his 11th championship, matching Boston great Bill Russell's total and possibly putting a cap on Jackson's remarkable career if he decides to leave the Lakers. The Zen Master will have trouble walking away from the chance for a fourth threepeat next year.
"Well, it's done. It wasn't well done, but it was done," Jackson said. "I thought our defense was terrific. We were able to step in and play the kind of defense that we've established as a calling card for this team, and we found a way to generate some points."
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 that revenge was as cold as Bryant's jumper.
Bryant said he had to downplay the magnitude of the rivalry during the series, but he came clean while sitting at 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."
And when Bryant was asked what the title means to him personally, he answered without self-censorship: "Just got one more than Shaq. You can take that to the bank. You know how I am. I don't forget anything."
As if anybody could forget, Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant teamed up for three titles from 2000-02, with Shaq winning his fourth in 2006 with Miami. The Lakers' last two belong to Bryant and Pau Gasol, who had 19 points and 18 rebounds after a slow start in Game 7.
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 percent at the free throw line. Los Angeles finished with just 32.5 percent shooting.
Yet the Lakers' defense slowed Rajon Rondo and the Celtics' offense to a trickle in the fourth quarter. Los Angeles reclaimed the lead midway through and hung on with a few more big shots from Gasol, who had nine points in the period, 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," said Artest, whose 3-pointer with 1:01 to play was the Lakers' last field goal of the season. "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.
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 center Kendrick Perkins, but Boston flopped in two chances to clinch the series in Los Angeles after winning Game 5 back home.
"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, his legs worn out from chasing Bryant on defense. "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 had never lost a seventh game in the finals. Despite nursing a lead through most of the night while holding the Lakers to that ridiculously low shooting percentage, 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.
Boston faces even more offseason uncertainty than the Lakers, with Allen's free agency and coach Doc Rivers' decision atop the list.
"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 much more poise from the opening tip in Game 7, playing vicious defense 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.
"Close is not enough," said Glen Davis, whose six points and nine rebounds were the Celtics' only contributions from their bench. "You've got to win it. I don't know what's going on with who's coming back, but I'll be ready when training camp comes around."
NOTES: 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 favor of a more interactive celebration. ... Home teams improved to 14-3 in Game 7 in the finals. No road team has won a title in Game 7 since 1978.
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