Lakers finally play like champs
Playing with urgency and hustle, L.A. forces what promises to be a classic Game 7
LOS ANGELES -- It was six minutes into Game 6 of the NBA Finals before the Lakers, the championship-caliber Lakers that is, showed up.
After taking the lead when Kobe Bryant hit back-to-back buckets midway through the first quarter, Lakers clamped down and the seesaw stopped, leaving the Celtics dangling up in the air, at the mercy of the hustle-and-go Lake Show.
And it was about time.
It began with a Ron Artest block on Rajon Rondo at the rim, for what seemed like the first time all series.
Then came a flurry of activity, plays that transformed a group that had seemingly lost its way into a unit that understood its mission.
Bryant made another jumper, this one of the how-did-he-do-that variety, with two Celtics draped on him at the elbow. He followed it with a steal on the next possession, playing possum and luring Paul Pierce into a pass Bryant could grab and take the other way. The steal led to a Pau Gasol fast-break layup, and the Staples Center crowd started to revel in memories of the Lakers team that defeated the Jazz by 11, the Rockets by 19, the Nuggets by 27 and the Magic by 13 in closeout games last year.
The manic minute got the Lakers, who had been thoroughly outworked in Games 4 and 5, over the hustle hump, and three-and-a-half quarters of extra effort later, they had an 89-67 win and we have a Game 7 between the Lakers and Celtics Thursday.
"We executed," Bryant said afterward, keeping his postgame answers as clipped and ruthless as his 26-point, 11-rebound, 3-assist, 4-steal line. "We executed extremely well. You didn't see us blow too many assignments and get too many easy opportunities, which we did in Boston, and then on top of that, we had a lot of effort behind the execution and because of that, we had a big win."
Big is an understatement, considering the Lakers led by as many as 27 points Tuesday, and the combined margin of their three losses to Boston in Games 2, 4 and 5 had been just 22 points.
We're told trying trumps talent. But when you have as much talent as the Lakers do, and want it more than the other guy ... well, that's just not fair.
"They were terrific," Boston head coach Doc Rivers said. "I thought they just showed great trust. And the more they got it going, the more everybody got involved."
And it wasn't just the fact that everyone got involved, or that all 12 Lakers who dressed for the game played, but it was the way they made their mark.
Gasol bounced back from his worst game of the playoffs to flirt with a triple-double -- 17 points, 13 rebounds, 9 assists and 3 blocks. But the night-defining play came with his team up by 18 points midway through the third quarter when he was still seeing just how far the Lakers could push things. He took a shot in the face from Pierce, making him crumple to the floor, but as soon as he realized no whistle was coming, sprang to his feet, beelined toward Pierce, who was dribbling on the perimeter, forced a turnover and created a breakaway dunk opportunity for Shannon Brown.
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Only two points were scored, but the result was an incredible surge for the home crowd, and a just reward for Brown, who contributed to the Lakers' bench dominating the Celtics' subs 24-0 through three quarters.
Brown was outdone by Sasha Vujacic (who didn't even play a game in the first two rounds of the playoffs while dealing with a sprained left ankle), who scored nine points in 14 minutes Tuesday.
The boys from Queensbridge checked back into the series, too. Artest finished with 15 points and six rebounds, outscoring his defensive assignment, Pierce, just as he had in Game 1 of the series. Lamar Odom meanwhile tallied just eight points and 10 rebounds but played with a relentlessness that just wasn't there in Boston.
"It's amazing the things you'll do as a team when you're looking at your death or looking at your grave," Odom said.
That look into the abyss compelled Jordan Farmar to dunk over Kevin Garnett at one point and caused him to sacrifice his body diving for a loose ball at another moment.
"I have a couple floor burns on my hands, I have a big blister on my hand, that's how it feels," Farmar said. "That's how it's supposed to feel in the NBA Finals. Game 6, backs against the wall, you're supposed to be hurting."
The Celtics will be hurting too, as they dwell on a box score showing they were outrebounded by 13, outscored in the paint by eight, managed five fewer steals and four fewer blocked shots, and were edged in second-chance points (15-6) and fast-break points (10-9) as well.
Luke Walton said the Lakers had a meditation session Tuesday morning, allowing the team to find the zone that it hadn't found since that Game 6 in Denver last year, when it was able to turn what had been a tug-of-war series into a laugher.
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"I don't know if it was desperation as much as it was the ultimate focus," Walton said. "You could just tell the energy and tension in this locker room before the game. It was everybody focused, everybody willing to make the extra play, whether it was pass, rebound, box out, diving for loose balls, everybody was willing to do that."
Odom likened the meditation to a form of prayer.
Whatever it was, it seemed to mean the defending champions showed up for the first time in the series since Game 1.
And that just may be the answer to Lakers fans' prayers.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. http://twitter.com/mcten