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Dan Shaughnessy

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Celtics’ quest comes to a frustrating end in Game 7

Body language told the tale last night as Celtics captain Paul Pierce left the court while Lakers rejoiced behind him. Body language told the tale last night as Celtics captain Paul Pierce left the court while Lakers rejoiced behind him. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / June 18, 2010

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LOS ANGELES — For a while it looked as if maybe they’d be smoking victory cigars in a champagne-soaked visitors’ locker room at Staples Center.

But then the Celtics wilted, turned into pumpkins, and suddenly there was gold and purple confetti raining down on their heads.

The Los Angeles Lakers beat the Celtics, 83-79, in Game 7 of the NBA Finals last night, purging a few of those Green Ghosts of decades past. Series MVP Kobe Bryant scored 23 points, but made only 6 of 24 shots in a game that was utterly lacking in grace and flow.

“I told my guys after the game I couldn’t be more proud of the group than any I’ve ever been around,’’ said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who hasn’t decided if he wants to come back for 2010-11. “We’re not going to be the same team next year. Guys are going to not be there, so that was tough for me.’’

In some ways it felt like high school graduation night. Boston’s New Big Three Era is probably over. It yielded one championship and another trip to the Finals, where the fourth-seeded Celtics overcame many obstacles and almost willed themselves to an 18th championship.

“There’s a lot of crying in our locker room and a lot of people who care,’’ said Rivers. “I don’t think there was a dry eye. A lot of hugs, a lot of people feeling awful. That’s a good thing. That means everybody cared.’’

This was a game the Celtics could have won. They led the Lakers by 13 points in the second half, and led, 57-53, going into the fourth. But they came up short, figu ratively and literally. They missed center Kendrick Perkins, who tore ligaments in his knee in Game 6. They went as far as they could go with Rasheed Wallace and Glen Davis, but they were outrebounded, 53-40, and the team that won the rebounding battle won every game of this grueling series.

The frustrating loss came two years to the day that this same group beat the Lakers to win banner No. 17. Those Lakers were humiliated by 39 points in Game 6, and their team bus was rocked by rowdy Celtics fans on the streets outside the Garden.

In 1985, Lakers coach Pat Riley spoke of defeating the “mythology of the Celtics,’’ and this Laker group faced the same challenge. The 2009-10 Lakers had to be worried that the old guard Celtics were somehow going to stagger ahead again, but it did not happen this time. In the end, the Lakers had the mental toughness necessary to win a close Game 7. And Kobe finally admitted that it meant something to him. Now he gets to say he’s the best Laker ever. And he gets to say he’s won more championships than Shaquille O’Neal.

The Game 7 tone was set early. It looked as if Joey Crawford, Danny Crawford, and Scott Foster had been sent from league headquarters with a directive to swallow their whistles. The rules were pretty simple: no blood, no foul. The zebras were letting the fellas play and this helped Boston immensely.

What hurt the Celtics was their inability to keep the Lakers away from second shots. Los Angeles worked for an astounding 10 offensive rebounds in the first quarter. Still, the Lakers couldn’t penetrate Tom Thibodeau’s defense (the Celtics are really going to miss this guy) and Boston led, 23-14, after one.

The Lakers burst out of the blocks with a 12-0 run to start the second, taking a 25-23 lead when Ron Artest went over a pair of Celtics for another follow-up bucket.

Paul Pierce got in the zone after that and the Celtics were able to grind their way to a 40-34 lead at intermission. Kobe had 8 points on 3-for-14 shooting at halftime. The Lakers also missed 6 of 12 free throws in the first two quarters.

A runner by Rajon Rondo made it 47-36 in the third minute of the third and forced Lakers coach Phil Jackson to call a rare timeout. At that moment, Kobe was 3 for 16 from the floor and it felt as if we were watching a silent movie at Staples. The Last Picture Show. Boston’s lead peaked at 13, but we all know the Celtics blew a lot of second-half, double-digit leads in 2009-10.

The Lakers cut the margin to 4 at the end of three. Kobe was 5 for 20 in the first three quarters, while Ray Allen was staring at 1 for 9.

Derek Fisher tied it with a three midway through the fourth. At 5:56, Kobe made two free throws to give the Lakers their first lead since 25-23.

The Celtics couldn’t convert late in the fourth and the Lakers went up by 6 with a minute and a half left. Rondo and Wallace (starting in place of Perkins) hit a couple of treys, but it was too late.

Jackson had his 11th championship (two more than Red Auerbach), Kobe finally had a Finals win over the Celtics, and we witnessed the end of ubuntu on the floor of the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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