There were 90 seconds left in Game 7, 90 seconds standing between Kobe Bryant and another step toward the soaring silhouette that has loomed over his career. If he was going to get his fifth championship Thursday night, one shy of No. 23, then No. 24 was going to have to do it in a way that he's never had to do it before.
Bryant was as mortal as you've ever seen him in the most pressurized game of his career, Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Michael Jordan he wasn't. Stubborn, persistent, and in the end, trusting of his supporting cast? Bryant was those things Thursday night. He had no choice.
The greatest basketball player in the world, the best since Jordan, couldn't do anything right. He took 24 shots from the field and missed 18 of them. He had four turnovers. Gripping the ball too tightly, seizing the moment too forcefully, Bryant pushed and pushed and watched all he'd worked for begin to slip away.
"The more I tried to push, the more it kept getting away from me," Bryant said after the Lakers survived his worst nightmare to beat the Celtics 83-79 for their 16th NBA championship. "I'm just glad that my teammates really got us back in this game."
It was the worst-case scenario for the Lakers -- abysmal shooting, even from the free-throw line, and a 13-point deficit in the third quarter with the championship on the line. On this night, his teammates couldn't rely on Bryant, who'd bailed them out so many times. On this night, Bryant had to rely on them.
"He was trying too hard," Phil Jackson said. "He's a guy that can try hard and get things accomplished by sheer will. But this night was not one that he was able to do that."
So with 90 seconds left, Bryant did something that nobody in the building expected him to do, even with his shots not going down. He did something that not even the recipient of the pass expected him to do.
"He passed me the ball," Ron Artest said. "He never passes me the ball, and he passed me the ball."
This was during a rollicking re-enactment of the biggest shot in the game, Artest surrounded by his wife, parents and children in the interview room -- the joy pouring out of him after winning his first title.
"He's a Zen Master," Artest said of Kobe. "So he can speak to you, and he doesn't need a microphone. You can hear him in your head: 'Ron, don't shoot, don't shoot.' Whatever. Pow! Three. I love the Zen, though."
Artest's 3-pointer from the left corner splashed in, from the very spot on the court where Jackson had urged him earlier in the playoffs to stop shooting. Artest, paired with Bryant to be his bodyguard and defensive stopper, was the offensive hero for the Lakers, too. He finished with 20 points, five rebounds, five steals, and one ring.
The shot was funnier during Artest's re-enactment. In real life, it turned a one-possession game into a two-possession game -- giving the Lakers a 79-73 lead that seemed mountainous in a game so physical, so tense, so ugly that six more points by either side in the final 90 seconds seemed an impossibility.
But these were the Lakers and the Celtics, and Rajon Rondo wasn't about to let the Big Three era end quietly. He hit a 3-pointer of his own off a broken play to cut the deficit to 81-79 with 16.2 seconds left. And you knew in a game like this that the last points wouldn't be scored by Bryant, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, or Kevin Garnett. They would be scored by someone like Sasha Vujacic, and lo and behold, they were. Vujacic subbed in for Artest to give the Lakers a better free-throw shooter on the floor, and sure enough, he got fouled and knocked down both with 11.7 seconds left to seal the championship -- the second straight for the Lakers, fifth for Bryant and Derek Fisher, 11th for Jackson, and according to Bryant, the most difficult one of all.
"It was the most physical one," Bryant said. "They believed that they could beat us, obviously after what happened in '08. But the physicality of their team, how smart they are, extremely well coached, and guys made big shots. It was tough. They weren't going to beat themselves. We had to beat them."
We. Let that word sink in for a moment. We. The Celtics weren't going to beat themselves on this night, and Bryant wasn't going to beat them either.
"It's whatever it takes to win the game," Bryant said. "You've got to do whatever it takes. That's my job."
This night wasn't the first time that Bryant has reminded me of Jordan, but he'd never done it like this before. It brought to mind a smart description of Bryant that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had provided earlier this season that's worth unveiling now.
"A lot of people have a lot of abilities, both physical and intrinsic basketball abilities, intelligent people," Popovich said. "He has what Michael had: not just an unbelievable competitive resolve but a real feel for the game -- to know what has to be done at what point in the game, when he has to insert himself into the mix. Whether it might be an offensive rebound, a steal, a 3-pointer, whatever it takes, he seems to understand what the game demands. And there are very, very few people in the league who can do that and he does it better than anybody."
In the crucible of Game 7, Bryant understood. His hands were failing him, his shots were going awry, his relentless desire to push past the physical pain he's endured for months was causing him to squeeze the moment too hard. So he defended, he rebounded (15 times), and he understood that the game was going to be won in the final 90 seconds by somebody other than him.
"Sometimes shots aren't going to fall," Bryant said. "But you've got to figure something out to help your team win. And nobody did it better than MJ."
Now, nobody does it better than Bryant. His fifth title put him one closer to Jordan, and you can start carving his image onto basketball's Mount Rushmore because he isn't finished yet. It was his second title without Shaquille O'Neal, an historical footnote that was not lost on Bryant in the interview room.
"One more than Shaq," Bryant said. "You can take that to the bank. You know how I am. I don't forget anything."
No. 24 got one step closer to No. 23 Thursday night, scoring 23 points and needing -- what else? -- 24 shots to do it. I asked him about Jordan afterward, about closing in on No. 6.
"It's tough for me to really put that in any kind of context in terms of he and I go, because 90 percent of what I've learned and what I've figured out comes from him," Bryant said. "So this is not a situation where it's a me-and-Shaq rivalry kind of thing. It's different. It's more of a genuine love that I have for him and what he's done for me. It's completely different."
But in this way, Bryant and Jordan are one in the same. Afterward, champagne still flowing in the Lakers locker room and confetti still fluttering on the Staples Center court, Bryant already was sizing up the next challenge.
Item No. 1 is to persuade Jackson, the most decorated coach in NBA history, to come back and try to do this again. Jackson still wasn't providing any hints about his future Thursday night, except to say that winning again "does improve my chances" of returning next season. Let's just say I wouldn't want to be Jackson or Dr. Jerry Buss conspiring to take Bryant's coach away from him in a week or so.
"He knows how bad I want him back," Bryant said. "He knows that. I've told him that. I've been openly blunt about it. Let's go for it again. Let's go for it again."
And so it will be on to the next one, as Bryant has been saying throughout the most demanding and draining postseason of his career. On to No. 6. And then, who knows?