Posted by Sekou Smith
LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant walked out of the Staples Center Thursday night with his fifth NBA title and his second straight Finals MVP. He praised the “Spaniard” [Pau Gasol] specifically for all his help in reaching this career milestone.
The MVP on this night, however, was none other than Ron Artest.
No one walked out of the building without seeing that, not after his 20 points, five rebounds, five steals and iron will helped drag the Lakers back from a 13-point deficit to beat back a Celtics team that controlled the action for much of the night.
“Ron Artest was the most valuable player tonight,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “He brought life to our team, he brought life to the crowd.”
When he replaced Trevor Ariza on the roster and in the starting lineup last summer, Artest made it clear that if the Lakers did not return to this space and place and win another title that it would be on his broad shoulders.
Those would be the same shoulders that carried the Lakers throughout one of their uglier games in these playoffs (32 percent shooting from the floor and 67 percent from the free throw line). While Bryant and Gasol struggled early to manage their games through tough nights, Artest was a vision.
He was all over the floor. He drained a 3-pointer with 61 seconds to play that helped the Lakers finish off the Celtics in a dramatic Game 7 that was full of twists and turns, many of which Artest played a hand in with his stifling defense on Celtics captain Paul Pierce, and timely work on offense.
In the 2008 Finals,these same Celtics were able to choke the Lakers out in six games by smothering Bryant. They knew he’d want revenge and would do anything he had to in order to get it. That usually means Bryant will have an explosive scoring night and find a way to impact a game in whatever way he can.
Not this time.
“He didn’t have to,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “Artest was unbelievable.”
The rest of the Celtics knew it, too.
This was their Game if Artest hadn’t played the way he did.
“Artest was the difference in the game,” Big Baby Davis said. “He wanted it. He took it from us.”
It’s been a wild ride for Artest since he charged into the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills on that fateful November night in 2004, when he played for the Indiana Pacers. The brawl that ensued and the fallout — Artest was suspended for 73 games, the remainder of that season, and held up as the scourge of professional sports for an ugly affair that won’t soon be forgotten.
Flanked by family, a still giddy Artest addressed all that and more in a wonderfully rambling post-game session in the media work room that has to go down as an instant classic, a cathartic one you actually have to see to believe.
He apologized for those past transgressions, for those teammates he “quit” on because he was young and egotistical — his words.
This night was about not only the Lakers winning a title, but Artest’s own personal rise from the ashes. No longer the punch line of a joke, he exited the building doing all the laughing.
“The history of me in the playoffs, which I need to get better at, is playing more consistently throughout the playoffs,” Artest said. “Today is one of those days where I trusted in myself and I didn’t settle for some shots. I kind of at the right time did exactly what Coach wanted me to do. I just got to thank Coach Jackson for having me and Kobe and the Lakers for giving me this opportunity, and I’m really, really just enjoying this, and I just can’t wait to go to the club.”