A Great Comeback + Ron Artest = Fun
LOS ANGELES - That may have been one of the more thrilling NBA Finals games that I've ever covered. Yes, it was awesome to be in Staples Center to see the Boston Celtics pull out the greatest comeback in NBA Finals' history, and take a 3-1 series lead with a 97-91 victory.
But you really want to know why this was a great experience? Well, how often do you get to watch a game with Ron Artest sitting next to you? Yes, I'm talking about that Ron Artest.
I showed up at my seat late in the second quarter (David Stern's pre-game press conference had me writing for most of the first quarter) and Artest, wearing a New York Mets cap, was chatting it up with the New York Post's Hoop Du Jour Peter Vecsey, who was seated next to me. Artest was about to leave when I showed up, but I told him it was cool if he stuck around. Who wouldn't want to watch a game with Ron Ron?
I asked Artest if he had a place in Los Angeles or if he was just hanging out. He told me that he used to have a spot, but he was just in town to watch the games. Artest wasn't hiding his support of the Lakers. He has known fellow Queens native Lamar Odom since he was 12, and they were on the same AAU team. Artest also is a huge, huge Kobe Bryant fan. I've talked to Artest several times before, but I never realized what a cool, regular dude he was until last night. He shared a pretzel with Vecsey, shook hands with fans and signed autographs.
After Odom dominated in the first half, dazzling with his aggressive drives to the basket and his playing making ability, Artest said, "When we played together. . .that's the only Lamar I know." He shouted encouragement to Odom throughout the entire game, especially in the second half, when Odom reverted to his passive ways. "He's got to shoot the ball," Artest said.
As the Celtics slowly cut down the lead, Artest kept saying, "Uh oh. We've got a ballgame, folks."
One of the funniest moments of the game, came late in the fourth quarter, after Celtics reserve James Posey hit a three-pointer to bring Boston within 81-80. The Lakers worked the ball into Gasol and Artest shouted, "C'mon. You've got be strong. Be strong."
Gasol threw up a pretty weak shotput, that gave the Lakers a three-point lead. I said, "That wasn't what I would call strong, but it worked." Then, when Kevin Garnett drove toward the basket and knocked Gasol on his back, I said, "That really wasn't strong."
When the Celtics scored the next eight points to take an 88-83 lead, Artest said, "C'mon Kobe, show them what you're made of."
After Ray Allen drive past Sasha Vujacic and around Gasol for the game-clinching layup, Artest shook his head and got up out of his seat. "This is unreal," he said.
It really was. This series had 2-2 written all over it in the first half. The Staples Center was rocking, too (that's relative, though, since the crowd here and the one in Boston aren't even close. It's like comparing a cat's meow to a lion's roar).
But Justin Timberlake got up and danced, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Will Smith made out on the Kiss Me cam over the Jumbotron. And of course, Jack Nicholson was as cool as ever. The stars were out, and the Lakers were putting on a show as they were up 45-21 in the first half on Thursday.
It was a surreal performance. Not just because Odom was the best player on the court through the first 24 minutes, or that players like Trevor Ariza, Vladimir Radmanovic and Jordan Farmar seemed to hit every shot they put up. The most startling aspect of the Lakers' first half dominance - and they're rather imposing 18-point halftime lead - was that the Lakers had built the lead without a single field goal by Kobe Bryant.
Bryant has a well-earned reputation as the game's best closer, but in the fourth quarter, it seemed as if the Lakers were hoping, wishing and praying for Bryant to save them. They somehow forgot that ball movement got them the lead. It was kind of hard to watch the Celtics just punk them out of the win.
Vecsey wanted me to mention this, but with less than six minutes left in the third quarter, the Lakers led 70-52 and Radmanovic rushed a three-pointer that missed badly. Eddie House made a three-pointer on the other end to cut the deficit to 15. Vescey said that Radmanovic shot was going to kill the Lakers if the Celtics eventually came back and won.
"I would've called a timeout," he said, "right after that shot and taken [Radmanovic] out of the game."
"Phil's got nine rings," Artest said. "I don't know if I'm going to question a guy with nine rings."
"I will," Vecsey said.
It was a fun night.
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