Recently, ESPN.com published an article ranking the eight best NBA games of the past 10 seasons, and although the list was very solid, there was one glaring omission.
Amidst the success that LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant have had in recent years, it seems like people have forgotten the third chapter of the rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics just a decade ago.
That rivalry came to a head in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, one of the most epic NBA games of this era and of any era.
If it wasn’t the very best game of the past decade, it was certainly one of them, without a doubt.
Humiliating Loss Leads to Great Motivation
After losing the 2008 NBA championship to the Celtics in six games and getting manhandled at times, Kobe Bryant and company took the loss to heart and realized they needed to get tougher, especially mentally.
They also emotionally tapped into the history of the rivalry, which spanned half a century and involved such Lakers immortals as Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
It was the 11th time these two teams had met in the NBA Finals, and the ninth time the Lakers came up short.
But this Lakers squad was optimistic about the immediate future, as they realized they had a championship team on paper and simply needed to translate it into results on the court.
They romped through the 2008-09 regular season on a mission and were buoyed by the return of Andrew Bynum, who had missed the second half of the previous season with a subluxed kneecap and a bone bruise in the same knee.
With ample offensive talent around him for the first time in years, Kobe Bryant found a sizable burden lifted off his shoulders, and was able to focus more on leadership as he drove the Lakers to a 65-17 record.
After a stiff battle with a very strong Denver Nuggets team in the Western Conference Finals, the Purple and Gold returned to the NBA Finals, but there was a bit of a letdown as the Boston Celtics didn’t make it there, largely due to a season-ending injury to Kevin Garnett.
The Lakers got the monkey off their backs by defeating the Orlando Magic in five games to win their first world title since 2002, but something was missing, as they still hadn’t beaten their ancient rivals from the East Coast.
Well, after outlasting the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns in the conference finals the following year, the Lakers would finally have their dream rematch against the Celtics in the championship series.
Another Classic Matchup Between Basketball Titans
The 2010 NBA Finals was a topsy-turvy, unpredictable series, as the Lakers won Game 1 easily, then dropped Game 2 when Boston’s Ray Allen set a new Finals record with eight 3-pointers. After the Celtics won two of the next three in Boston, the Lakers returned home for Game 6 trailing 3-2 with their backs against the wall.
Los Angeles responded with a resounding 89-67 win, setting up a winner-take-all contest for the NBA championship.
Game 7s of the NBA Finals are rare and exciting enough, but when it involves the greatest rivalry in the history of basketball, you might as well multiply that excitement tenfold.
The two teams had met in a Game 7 four previous times, with the Celtics winning each time in a close contest. This meant that the Lakers weren’t just playing to get revenge, they were also playing for history.
Of course, Kobe Bryant’s legacy was also on the line. Lose, and he would solidify a complicated legacy as someone who had won titles with Shaquille O’Neal, but couldn’t deliver one on his own against Boston.
If he won, however, his legacy and basketball soul would be christened for eternity, and it would firmly place him among the 10 best players in NBA history, at least according to most reasonable observers.
One Game for All the Marbles
The first half was an ugly slugfest, as both teams struggled to throw a pea in the ocean. It was especially ugly for the Lakers, who fell behind 23-14 at the end of the first quarter, then made a run to take a brief 25-23 lead before trailing again at the half by a score of 40-34.
The Celtics increased their lead to 13 with 8:24 left in the third quarter. To this point, Bryant had missed 14 of his 17 shot attempts. If the Lakers were to lose this game, it would’ve left a grotesque scar on his legacy that likely couldn’t ever be covered up. The greatest player and closer of the era was, thus far, choking in the biggest game of his life.
Tired as he was, Bryant started changing his approach. He became more picky with his shot selection and started trusting his teammates more. Those teammates started hitting shots, and just like that L.A. pulled to within four points at the end of the third quarter.
The fourth quarter was an epic tug of war, as both teams fought for bragging rights. The Lakers surged ahead for a 70-64 lead as Bryant and Pau Gasol started to figure out how to manufacture points against one of the greatest defensive teams in recent NBA history.
But the Celtics weren’t exactly done, as Rasheed Wallace’s three cut it to 76-73 with 1:23 left.
This was a gut-check moment for the Purple and Gold. They got the ball to Bryant, who faced a double team in 3-point territory. Open on the opposite side was Ron Artest (now Metta World Peace), who was a mediocre outside shooter. Bryant fed Artest the ball, and Paul Pierce backed off him just a bit as Artest let fly from beyond the arc.
Moments later, the horn sounded and the Lakers had won their second straight NBA championship. Despite shooting 6-of-24 from the field, Bryant made three of his last seven shots and 9-of-11 free throws in the game’s final 21:36, for a true shooting percentage of 63.3 percent during that span.
Simply said, Bryant did come through in the clutch in the biggest game of his life, and so did the Lakers.
It was a game that was close for most of the way, not to mention hotly contested. It had almost everything – physicality, tough defense, star power on both sides, tension and a bunch of legacies, both individual and collective, hanging in the balance.
The one thing it lacked was beauty and artistry, but when you’re talking about the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, maybe it wasn’t totally necessary.