Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals proved three things. Ugly basketball can be beautiful. Defense really does win championships. And no one player is more important than his team.
Thanks to shutdown defense, Ron Artest's sports psychiatrist, and a 53-40 edge in rebounds, the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Boston Celtics, 83-79, to win their second straight NBA title. Though to be precise, the Lakers didn't really beat the Celtics. They survived them.
Only the most ardent basketball fan could call what transpired at the Staples Center in Los Angeles good basketball. The teams shot a combined 56-for-154 from the field. Ray Allen, the Boston sharpshooter who set an NBA Finals record with eight three-pointers in Game 2, shot just 3-for-14. But Allen's abysmal day paled in comparison with Kobe Bryant's. At one point, the Lakers star was 3-for-17 from the field, numbers so bad the ABC announcers evoked the gold standard for Game 7 futility, John Starks. Even Kobe's 10 points in the fourth quarter were ugly—eight of them came from the foul line.
But it was the ugliness of the game, the physical struggle of two teams determined to challenge every shot and fight for every rebound, that made it an instant classic. As the Lakers slowly rallied from a 13-point third-quarter deficit, the game became an epic struggle that left players on both sides sucking wind. L.A. nearly cost itself the game with an atrocious performance at the foul line, shooting just 68 percent from the charity stripe. Check the replays—most of their misses were short, a sign of abject exhaustion from players who literally left it all on the court.
The only player whose energy never wavered was Artest, best known for charging into the stands and setting off the Melee at Auburn Hills. Is he still a head case? Sure. But thanks to some timely therapy and a desire to please Bryant and coach Phil Jackson, Artest stayed under control throughout the playoffs, which gave his innate talent a chance to emerge. He had a team-high seven field goals in Game 7, and his backbreaking three-pointer with a minute left to stretch the Laker lead to six was the biggest shot of the series.
Artest wasn't the only member of Kobe's supporting cast to come through when the exhausted superstar faltered. Pau Gasol (or as Kobe calls him, "that Spaniard,") dominated the Celtics inside on his way to 19 points, 18 rebounds, and 6.5 bloodcurdling screams. Lamar Odom assumed some of the ballhandling duties while point guard Derek Fisher was unavailable, and he added seven points and seven rebounds. When Fisher came back midway through the fourth, he nailed a long three-pointer to tie the game and swing the momentum in L.A.'s direction.
Do the Lakers represent the epitome of team basketball? No—Kobe's 24 attempted shots make that clear. But their Game 7 win was a team effort. And it mirrored a series-long trend that coaches at all levels should use as a teaching point. When Kobe had great individual performances but didn't get his teammates involved (like his 38-point gem in Game 5), L.A. lost. When Kobe struggled but relied on his teammates to "pick [him] up," the Lakers were a good enough team to beat back their bitter rivals and earn the sweetest of championships.