LOS ANGELES — Release the balloons. Ah, better make that purple-and-gold confetti.
The Lakers had to rally midway through the fourth quarter to make it happen and it took some key free throws by Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant to wrap it up. The Celtics were within two with 13 seconds to play. Sasha Vujacic was sent to the line and made both with 11.7 seconds left, giving the Lakers a four-point lead and the victory.
Before Thursday, the Lakers were 0-4 against the Celtics in Game 7s, including the infamous Finals in 1969 when Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke had stashed balloons in the rafters for what he believed would be the ultimate celebration. He even had instructions placed at every seat telling fans how the postgame celebration would proceed. The Celtics won that game and Cooke's premature celebration strategy would live on in NBA Finals lore.
But the legends that were created — or enhanced — Thursday came in the form of lifetime achievement. It was coach Phil Jackson's first Game 7 in the Finals. He's now 1-0 and will be the recipient of his 11th NBA championship ring, two more than Boston's signature patriarch Red Auerbach.
"This one is by far the sweetest, because it's them," Bryant said. "This was the hardest one by far."
Bryant picked up his fifth invitation to a ring-fitting ceremony, one shy of Michael Jordan.
But for Bryant it was anything but a Jordan-like performance. Not even a Bryant-like performance. He finished with 23 points on 6-of-24 shooting but did hit five straight key free throws down the stretch and grab 15 rebounds.
"I wanted it so bad, and sometimes when you want it so bad, it slips away from you," Bryant said. "My guys picked me up."
It came down to the final minutes. The Lakers trailed for most of the game until they put together a 9-0 run midway through the final period to take a six-point lead with about 4:38 to play.
That's when Gasol put together a string of free throws, and his basket with 1:30 to play allowed the Lakers to keep a six-point cushion, 76-70.
That's when the 3-pointers started to come, first from Rasheed Wallace, then by Ron Artest, followed by Ray Allen. Then the game got settled when Bryant, in the midst of a terrible shooting game, made both his foul shots with 25.7 seconds to play to put the Lakers up five.
Rajon Rondo answered with a 3 to cut the score to 81-79 with 13 seconds to play before the Lakers wrapped it up.
Artest scored 20 for the Lakers and Gasol had 19 points and 18 rebounds.
"Well, first all I want to thank everybody in my hood," Artest said in a television interview right after the game. "I definitely want to thank my doctors … my psychiatrist, she really helped me relax a lot."
The Celtics were at a decided disadvantage before the game even started. Center Kendrick Perkins tore two ligaments in his right knee early in Game 6.
"You know, it's the first time all year that you can actually say at the end of the day we were old at the end of the game, because we didn't have enough bodies," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I thought it hurt us."