Sasha Vujacic's victory-clinching free throws provides positive end to adversarial season
As Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic stepped to the free-throw line, he showed a determined and even-keel demeanor. It's moments like these that he cherishes, where his contribution can significantly affect the outcome of an important game. That's why he wasn't fazed one bit when he went to the stripe, knowing his two foul shots with 11.7 seconds remaining could prove instrumental in widening the Lakers' two-point lead.
"I knew we were about to win the game," Vujacic said. "We didn't want to give them a chance to come back or make some crazy shots. I had to make two free throws. I did it."
He sure did. Vujacic sank both free throws without a problem, securing the Lakers' 83-79 Game 7 NBA Finals victory Thursday over the Boston Celtics.
Vujacic's contributions went beyond getting revenge against Boston for the Lakers' 2008 Finals loss, a defeat that irked Vujacic so much that he couldn't stand seeing the color green. "The Celtics destroyed my summer," Vujacic said. "I'm not going to lie to you." The effort went beyond the fact that Vujacic's minutes increased throughout the Boston series. It also speaks to Vujacic ending the season on a high note after experiencing plenty of frustrations.
"A lot of ups downs," Vujacic said of his 2009-10 season, which entailed averaging 2.8 points in 8.6 minutes, both career lows. "Playing, not playing. Injuries. To think, two months ago I couldn't walk. It's great to make a recovery process, come back and play again."
Vujacic is referring to when he sprained his left ankle with 2:51 left in the second quarter of the Lakers' season finale after Clippers guard Mardy Collins fouled him on a three-point attempt. After Vujacic attempted a 20-foot jumper from the left corner, he landed on Collins’ foot. Vujacic lay on the sideline wincing in pain before trainer Gary Vitti and reserve Jordan Farmar helped him off the court.
Vujacic had been on a tear before his ankle injury. After he scored a season-high 13 points against Sacramento the previous night, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson suggested Vujacic would receive heavy minutes in the postseason. It provided a remarkable possibility considering Vujacic essentially played himself out of the rotation two weeks earlier after arguing with assistant coaches during the Lakers' 91-75 loss to Oklahoma City on March 26.
He experienced similar frustrations after suffering a right shoulder sprain on Feb. 19 against Boston. Before that injury, his minutes had picked up ever since during Kobe Bryant's five-game absence because of a sprained left ankle. There was a clear increase in production in the last five games during Bryant's absence compared to his season average, including points (2.5 to 4.4), rebounds (1.1 to 2.0) and assists (0.6 to 1.8).
Even though Vujacic returned in time for the Western Conference finals, Vujacic only played in three of the six games. He surely didn't help his cause when his scuffle with fellow Slovenian Goran Dragic nearly cost the Lakers' Game 6 West Finals matchup against Phoenix, prompting Bryant to suggest he wanted to kill Vujacic. Bryant's interaction with Vujacic looked much different once Vujacic made those two free throws, with the two embracing each other as they realized they were seconds away from becoming repeat champions.
"To have my teammates believing in me and coaches think I can seal the deal," Vujacic says, "is a great feeling."
Follow the L.A. Times Lakers blog on twitter: twitter.com/latmedina. E-mail the Lakers blog at firstname.lastname@example.org