LOS ANGELES -- As the Boston Celtics' team bus pulled out of the Staples Center loading dock, the darkened windows did not completely hide the glum, gloomy faces of the team that was the better of the two for three-plus quarters of Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
Can't tell you exactly how many of them were looking out those windows, but any of the folks on the right side of the bus who did peer outside would have seen Ron Artest's peeps holding up an No. 37 jersey, taunting those bus-borne Celtics while wearing sly, silly smiles on their faces.
This one hurt in so many ways for Boston, and getting taunted on the way out of the arena certainly didn't make it sting any less.
And as that bus pulled up the ramp and made its way onto the streets of downtown L.A., where the partying was in full swing, those downtrodden Celtics had to be asking themselves one pertinent question: How did they let this one get away?
"It was exactly the type of game we wanted," Doc Rivers said.
It was slow-paced, it was physical, it was defensively-oriented. And most importantly, when it was a test of poise under pressure during the first three quarters, it was the Celtics who were clearly looking like superior championship material.
They were not the ones going knock-kneed from the free throw line (like Pau Gasol), they were not the ones who developed sudden hitches in their shot releases (like Kobe Bryant), they were not the ones botching a majority of the second-chance possessions they were getting (like the Lakers kept doing).
And then the fourth quarter came, and the roles suddenly reversed.
After Ray Allen hit a difficult running floater in the lane to put Boston ahead 61-58 with 8:26 remaining, it would be another 4:41 until the Celtics made another field goal. They committed four fouls, two of the loose ball variety, they missed five consecutive shots, and they even got a missed free throw out of Allen, who was 21-for-21 from the line in the series up until that miss.
There was an eight-point swing during that span, including a huge 3-pointer by Derek Fisher (0-for-8 on 3s in the series entering Game 7), and the damage was done. Boston never got closer than two points the rest of the way, and an 83-79 loss ended the franchise's streak of four consecutive victories over the Lakers in Game 7s with the championship on the line.
"They scored 30 points in the fourth quarter, and for us, a defensive group, that's the toughest part to swallow -- that we gave up 30 points. We scored 22, but we gave up 30," Rivers said.
Not since the second quarter of Game 1 had the Celtics allowed the Lakers to score 30 or more points in a quarter, and it made it even tougher to swallow that 16 of those points came on free throws. Boston was whistled for 12 fouls to the Lakers' five.
The one play that particularly galled Rivers was the offensive rebound grabbed by Pau Gasol with 27.9 seconds left after Bryant had just missed a 3-pointer with the Lakers ahead by three.
"I thought Rondo boxed him out. He went over his back, but they're not going to call that with the size advantage," Rivers said. "So yeah, it was a big rebound."
Aside from the Lakers' 30-point fourth quarter on a night when they finished with only 83 points, rebounding was the one statistic that jumped out from the box score.
Los Angeles had a 23-8 edge in offensive boards and a 53-40 rebounding advantage overall, continuing the trend in which the team that won the battle of the boards emerged victorious in all seven games.
"Twenty-three offensive rebounds tells you how much this team fought to win this championship," said Gasol. (He received my Finals MVP vote because he was the best player on the court for the Lakers in the final six minutes, which is when the championship was won.)
"I can't say enough about that Spaniard," Bryant said as he was receiving the Finals MVP trophy. "That guy is unbelievable and just a hell of a player. We wouldn't have won it without him."
But the fourth-quarter offensive drought was what ultimately doomed the Celtics, who scurried off the court in a hurry as gold and purple streamers fell from the rafters, followed by confetti that somehow managed to hang in the air, twirling and defying gravity, for several minutes after the game had ended.
"I thought we stopped playing a little bit," Rivers said. "I thought we had great motion and movement throughout the game, and in that one stretch we stopped. And it hurt us because they were scoring.
"One of the things I was trying to get our group to understand is that we can go on scoring droughts, but they can't score. The problem was that we went on that drought and they scored."
But Rivers provided a window into what he had seen, and I am sure it matched what was being felt back in Boston after such a riveting, intense game had not gone the Celtics' way.
"Well, there's a lot of crying in our locker room, a lot of people who care. I don't think there was a dry eye," Rivers said. "A lot of hugs, a lot of people feeling awful. That's a good thing, it means everybody cared."
And as the Celtics drove off into the L.A. night, the one thought that came to mind was this: That was as entertaining of a Finals game as I have ever witnessed, and it was a shame that one of these teams had to lose.