"He trusted us and made us feel so good and he passed me the ball,'' Artest said as he celebrated the Lakers' 83-79 victory over the Celtics in Game 7 of the NBA Finals on Thursday, and his astonishing role in it. "He never passes me the ball! And he passed me the ball. Kobe passed me the ball, and I shot a three.''
He made that three to open a 79-73 lead with 1:01 remaining on a night when he scored 20 points to carry the Lakers. Artest needed 18 shots for those points on the same night when Bryant (26 points overall) was going 6-of-24 and committing four turnovers and missing all six of his threes. So here is the surprise twist to the Lakers' anticipated 16th championship -- Kobe Bryant was Mr. Nervous, and Ron Artest was Mr. Steady.
"I just wanted it so bad, I wanted it so, so bad,'' Bryant said as he sat with his pretty young daughters, Natalia and Gianna, in their matching rhinestone Lakers dresses.
His struggles have defined Bryant in ways that Michael Jordan never experienced when he was on top, and that trend continued into this night. The Celtics were trapping him and deflecting his passes and forcing him into corners where he had no other choice but to launch impossible jumpers. For more than three quarters, the Celtics controlled Bryant and therefore controlled the game.
They were running their offense through Rajon Rondo to shoot 58.8 percent, while holding the Lakers to 14 points in the opening period. They led by nine going into the second quarter and by as many 13 in the third. They were cutting backdoor for layups and dunks -- including several finished behind the defense by Kevin Garnett on lobs from Rondo -- and their team defense was having a quicksand effect on the defending champs. The harder the Lakers tried, the more they sank behind.
"You feel the excitement, you feel the moment,'' acknowledged Pau Gasol, who should never again be called soft after fighting through a 6-for-16 night to ultimately create 19 points, 18 rebounds, four assists and two blocks while controlling the paint at both ends. "You're shooting the same way you would shoot in any other game, but the shot goes off a little different, probably because of that excitement, that tension, anxiety of wanting to do so well and wanting to make every shot.''
He was speaking for himself as well as for Bryant. Maybe that was a new thing for Gasol, to be able to relate to his famously difficult teammate. But then he had to know how much this series meant to Bryant. As much as Kobe insisted over the last fortnight that he didn't care about beating the Celtics, on behalf of the Lakers' franchise and to avenge his own Finals' Game 6 loss at Boston by 39 points exactly two years ago to this very same night -- as much as he claimed to not care, no one believed him.
"I was lying to you guys,'' Bryant told reporters. "When you're in the moment, you have to suppress that because if you get caught up in the hype of it all, you don't really play your best basketball. But you guys know what a student I am of the game. I know every series that the Lakers have played in, and I know every Celtics series, I know every statistic. It meant the world to me, but I couldn't focus on that. I had to focus on playing.''
This has been a miserable year for Bryant, who promised to spend the summer ahead dealing -- whether by surgery or rest and rehab -- with his broken right index finger, which was wrapped in tape all season, and his swollen knee that was drained before the conference finals against Phoenix.
"I'm obviously going to have to look at the knee and figure some things out,'' he said. "I can't play a whole entire season the way it is now. Same thing with the finger. Without the tape, I can't grip a basketball.
"What drove me nuts and made this even sweeter was everybody kept talking about, 'He's old, he's old.' I was hurt. I drained my knee, and all of a sudden reeling off 30-point games and everybody said how young I looked. I was hurt.''
The lessons of Bryant's self-imposed problems over the years have taught him how to fight. Is there a more ruthless combatant in basketball? Since their Finals loss two years ago, the Lakers have conformed to his personality by learning to do whatever needs to be done. In this case, that meant instantly trying to correct their mistakes by following up their missed shots for 23 offensive rebounds and a crucial 53-40 rebounding advantage overall. Had the court been filled with water, they would have been splashing around their board like sharks fighting over supper.
Of course, the Celtics badly missed 6-foot-10 center Kendrick Perkins, sidelined by a knee injury in Game 6; but for 29 minutes, the Lakers had to do without 7-foot center Andrew Bynum, limited to six rebounds and two points by his own torn meniscus. They dominated the most important category of this Finals thanks to Gasol, whose 18 rebounds included nine offensive tallies, and the 6-6 Bryant, who contributed 15 rebounds.
"I had to do something,'' Bryant said.
And now for a few words about Artest. May we have a show of hands from everyone who believed he would be the death of the Lakers when they signed him last July? He was brought in to neutralize the best scorers, and with the help of trapping teammates, Paul Pierce was indeed held to 5-of-15 shooting in Game 7. But Artest astounded everyone, himself included, by going a combined 13-for-29 for 35 points in Games 6 and 7, elimination games for his team.
"Ron Artest was the most valuable player tonight,'' Lakers coach Phil Jackson said proudly, for he helped turn Artest into a productive member of the community. "He brought life to our team, he brought life to the crowd.''
"I've got to thank my doctor,'' Artest said of his psychiatrist. "She would come and help me relax in these moments, because usually I'm not good at these moments, and I know that about myself. I needed some type of way to relax during these moments. I missed a couple threes that I was wide open that I wish I would have went down, and I trusted everything she told me as far as relaxing. And bam! The big three goes in.''
Jackson has now won 11 championships, more than any franchise other than the Lakers and Celtics. The Lakers now stand one title short of the league record, Boston's 17, and they have a peaking team that could win at least one or two more. They won this one, in part, from the familiar formula of a big three by Derek Fisher midway through the fourth that tied the score at 64-64, making everything seem easier for L.A. on its way to scoring 22 of the final 37 points.
Yet what defined the Lakers in this Game 7 was a series of advances that have been under way since 2008 -- Gasol's toughness, and their team defense that held Boston to 19 field goals in the final three quarters, and Artest's reliability, and Bryant's need to rely on others. The last was fulfilled when he decided to not do it by himself and left it up to Artest to finish what they started at training camp last fall.
And so now Bryant was left to reflect on his fifth title, which equals the achievement of fellow Laker Magic Johnson and leaves him one short of Jordan's six with more years still to be contested. What does this latest championship mean to him?
"Just got one more than Shaq,'' he said, and he grinned back at the laughter that filled the room. "You can take that to the bank. You know how I am. I don't forget anything.''
Some things change. Others never do.