It's here. This is what we wanted all along. Seventh game, NBA Finals, two polar opposites, one of the most polarizing individuals in the history of the game, oceans of history surrounding them all. What more could you possibly want as a basketball fan?
Sure, some of the games have been pretty ugly, and Game 6 was legitimately unwatchable, but come on. It's Game 7 of the f'ing NBA Finals. Anyone that's really complaining... Hey, summer's just around the corner! The WNBA will be here soon. Basketball is basketball, right? They got next!
...Seriously. We need to savor this. So, in the spirit of celebrating, let's answer some frequently asked questions about Game 7 the 2010 NBA Finals. Here's what we'll cover:
- How many Game 7 cliches will we hear in the next 24 hours?
- What's the most underplayed subplot for the Celtics?
- If things get ugly, what's the best possible fight in Game 7?
- Nobody can defend Kobe Bryant... But can Tony Allen defend Kobe Bryant?
- Stephen A. Smith and Snoop Dogg. I... I don't even have a question.
- How much will the Celtics miss Kendrick Perkins?
- No matter what happens, who deserves to lose?
- Did Kevin Garnett go into labor during Game 6?
- What makes this series so special?
- What would be the most memorable outcome?
- What's one thing the Celtics need to win the 2010 Championship?
- What's one thing the Lakers need to win the 2010 Championship?
- Who's going to win?
So... Yeah. We're covering a lot of ground today. Skip around, read it all, do whatever you want. But before we get into those questions, let's talk about the most important one.
WHY SHOULD WE BE EXCITED ABOUT GAME 7?
You mean other than "the next meaningful basketball game isn't for 159 days"? Other than, "we've played 2,541 games in the 2010 season, and now one night decides everything"? Other than that?
1. Forget that it's the Celtics and Lakers. That's not even what makes this series interesting. With these two teams, we've got a completely perfect case study in contrast. On one side you've got the superstar and a bunch of high-priced role players with All-Star talent, but questionable intangibles. On the other, you've a team without a true superstar, full of aging veterans, an unorthodox young star, and galvanized by the same intangibles that the other team lacks. We'll delve into this deeper later on, but for now, just remember that whoever wins the NBA Championship on Thursday night will be relying on completely different strengths to do it.
2. Kobe Bryant. One of the best players in NBA history that, still, nobody can totally agree on. Is he a Top 10 player of all time? Or is he both a gift and a curse, glaring at teammates, sneering at opponents, and dying to be loved? Could he be both?
Whatever happens Thursday, we can pretty safely say that it'll shape the way we think of Kobe for the rest of his career. If the Lakers win, he's the Magic Johnson of the 2000s for that franchise. If they lose, though... Maybe this is Kobe's legacy:
"Magnificent player, mysterious person, hated Shaq, never beat the Celtics."
I mean, that's not that ridiculous, is it? Even if Kobe and the Lakers end up winning a title in 2011, it's hard to believe it'd come against the Celtics. And then we have a player whose biggest professional failures came against the same team, when he was the best player on the court, and the talent was even. That's not something that'll stick with him?
If he wins Thursday night, Kobe's Magic Johnson. If he loses, he's... Well, there's never been a player as good as Kobe to have such a glaring hole in his resume. That's why I figured the Lakers would win before the series. Now I'm not so sure.
3. Game 7, Idiot. How many times in sports do we see one game decide a championship?
The Super Bowl, the NCAA titles in basketball and football, and... That's pretty much it. We almost never see it in pro basketball, either. Before 2010, it'd happened four times since 1984.
If you can't get excited for a Game 7, then—Err... Hold on.
HOW MANY GAME 7 CLICHES WILL WE HEAR IN THE NEXT 24 HOURS?
There's so much cliched hyperbole we could toss around about Game 7, what it means, etc, that it really deserves its own section. Let's just get all of this out of the way at once.
These players... They grew up shooting on that hoop out back on that dirt court, always dreaming of this moment. Dad built the hoop, but it was the sons who grew up hit the game-winning shot in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Can one of them do it again? This is why they play the game, folks. Game 7. One game. It's all about which team wants it more. Whatever happens, both teams will leave everything out on the floor. Big time players make big time plays in big time games, and games don't get any bigger than this. Two teams enter, one team leaves. It's a game of inches out there. This is where legends are born. Intangibles. No fear. Hustle. Heart. History. If you can't get excited about a Game 7, somebody had better check your pulse. One game for all the marbles. Thousands of hours practicing, hundreds of games, all the film and weightlifting sessions... It all comes down to this. Do-or-die. Backs against the wall. Round 12 of a heavyweight bout. For these teams, there is no tomorrow. One game, anything can happen, and immortality hangs in the balance. Hollywood couldn't have written it any better. The two winningest franchises in NBA History, Game 7, the NBA Finals. But there can only be one champion. Nothing compares to a Game 7... One game. One.
How many games? One game.
Let it smother you like a warm, wool blanket. Sure, there's radiator burn toward the bottom there, a hole in the middle of it, and the whole thing smells like a mix between moth balls and urine, but damnit! That blanket of sportswriting cliche has been keeping sports fans cozy for over a century now. Somewhere out there, Frank Deford is doing backflips over that backyard line.
But cliches aside, there really isn't a whole lot that compares to Game 7. In life or sports.
Think about how many times you've gone into work knowing that the next three hours of the day will be remembered for the next 30 years. Never. How often does anything in life come down to one sequence where you can make or break your fate? Those moments happen, sure, but they're incredibly rare. And you never know 48 hours in advance.
These guys know. Paul Pierce, Kobe, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, Pau Gasol. What makes seventh games so fascinating isn't necessarily the game, but the idea that we're basically watching 20 guys perform in the biggest moment of their professional lives. Some people respond well and we remember them forever, and some... don't. We remember them, too. Ask John Starks.
Point is, beyond all the sportswriter schlock and oversaturated hype, the concept of playing a Game 7 for the title is pretty goddamn captivating. Maybe I'm wrong, but I feel like the Twitter generation is conditioned to be cynical about stuff like this, but don't pretend this isn't awesome.
Now, from ridiculously abstract commentary to something more tangible...
WHAT'S THE MOST UNDERPLAYED SUBPLOT FOR THE CELTICS?
Over the past two games, the Lakers have outshot the Celtics at the free throw line 45-23. Boston won Game 5 in spite of that disparity, but they lost Game 6 (in part) because of it. You can blame the refs, but (for a change) the officiating hasn't really been much of a story. With this, you have to look at Boston's offense.
In each of the past two games, they've settled for jumpshots far too often, and gotten away from what makes them a threat to the Lakers. When the Celtics take jumpers, they become ordinary. Paul Pierce can't dominate from the perimeter anymore, Rajon Rondo never could, and Kevin Garnett's 18-foot jumpers mean he's not in the paint, punishing Pau Gasol.
They got lucky in Game 5 because Pierce, Ray Allen, Garnett, and Rondo all shot above 50%, and it didn't matter that they weren't getting to the line. Odds of that happening again on Thursday night? Not very good. Which means they need to attack the basket, get the Lakers in foul trouble, and get to the line. It's what worked in their other wins, and ultimately, it's the only way they're going to beat L.A.
Also: Rajon Rondo is 4-17 from the free throw line. You might be asking yourself right now: "Is... Is that less 25%?" And the answer: Yes, yes it is. If Game 7 gets close toward the end, will Phil Jackson intentionally foul Rondo? Popovich would.
IF THINGS GET UGLY, WHAT'S THE BEST POSSIBLE FIGHT IN GAME 7?
Pardon the interruption here, but I've been wondering about this question all series. If Game 7 gets out of hand early and the Lakers are leading by 30 at halftime, who would make for the most entertaining fight? The way I see it, there are four contenders.
Kevin Garnett vs. Sasha Vujacic. Can you think of anything more entertaining than watching KG just snap and beat the hell out of Sasha? It would get real ugly, real quick, and that's the point. Like watching a little Chihuahua tangle with a Pit Bull. It'd last 15 seconds—max—and afterward, David Stern would either be force him to retire on the spot, or offer an immediate pardon, because Sasha had it coming. Either way, it'd be cathartic for everyone who's ever watched or played against Sasha Vujacic.
- Kobe Bryant vs. Pau Gasol. If things go really bad for the Lakers... Come on. You know you'd love it. It'd be the single most memorable moment of the year, and 15 years from now, there'd be an ESPN documentary about it. June 17, 2010: Where were you when Kobe Bryant concussed his own teammate?
Nate Robinson vs Pau Gasol. Less entertaining than Kobe, sure. But just for the pure spectacle of watching a 5'7 dude annihilate a 7'1 Spaniard. I'd watch Nate fight anyone on the Lakers—or everyone on the Lakers—but Pau would probably be most entertaining. Imagine Nate using his 45-inch vertical to deliver headshots to Pau.
- Ron Artest vs. Tom Thibodeau. Listen, Ron's done the "fighting other players" song and dance. This ain't his first rodeo. If he's going to lose it, he may as well break new ground. And Thibodeau—with his sweating, cursing, and anger issues—definitely wins the award for most obviously unstable assistant coach in the league. So... Why not?
Admit it: I've got you thinking...
NOBODY CAN DEFEND KOBE, BUT CAN TONY ALLEN DEFEND KOBE?
It's not a matter of "stopping" Kobe Bryant Thursday, because as Kobe's proven throughout the 2010 Playoffs, that's not really an option. But in the games the Celtics have won so far this series, Tony Allen has managed to annoy Kobe just enough—and with the help of flawless defensive rotations from the Celtics—that Kobe's been incapable of taking over down the stretch.
This means one of two things:
- Kobe tries to take over, anyway, and digs his own grave.
- Kobe defers to his teammates, who aren't used to getting looks in crunch time, and freeze up.
The Lakers have the best player in this series, but on some level, in certain games, he's a gift and a curse, like I mentioned earlier. It's not possible to "stop" Kobe Bryant, but players like Tony Allen can frustrate him and force him into bad shots. And his team's so reliant on Kobe in crunch time...
When someone stops him, you wonder whether a. Kobe has enough faith to trust them in crunch of a Game 7, and b. whether those teammates have enough faith in themselves.
STEPHEN A. SMITH AND SNOOP DOGG. I... I DON'T EVEN HAVE A QUESTION.
Stephen A. Smith: "YO SNOOP THAT GIRL BACK THERE IS STARING AT US."
(90 seconds of silence)
Snoop Dogg: "At us? Or me?"
Stephen A. Smith: "HAAAAAAAAAA. Always got jokes, huh? But yo Snoop. Dog. DOG! Have I told you about my new show on UStream?"
Snoop Dogg: "Uhh... Nah, nah you haven't."
Stephen A. Smith: "IT'S GONNA BE POPPIN. That's the next frontier, you know?"
Snoop Dogg: (mumbles)
Stephen A. Smith: YO ANNNNNND I JUST REVAMPED THE MYSPACE PAGE. NEW MEDIA, SON. Yo Snoop, how'd you stay relevant all these years?
Snoop Dogg: Honestly? I just smoke herb and keep showin' up places.
Stephen A. Smith: Dog. DOG! That's so... TRUTH, MAN. TRUTH!
Snoop Dogg: Yo, uh... Family, can you stop yelling please? I think Diddy's coming back soon. Ain't you sittin up there? Next to Randy Jackson and Stuart Scott? Lemme see your ticket.
Stephen A. Smith: HAAAAAAAA—
(Snoop tugs his sleeve)
(Bodyguards converge, Stephen A. is tasered)
...Stephen A. Smith, folks. Reporting LIVE from the 2010 NBA Finals!
HOW MUCH WILL THE CELTICS MISS KENDRICK PERKINS?
A lot. The popular answer before Game 7 will be that he was the most expendable Celtic starter, and that with Andrew Bynum playing on one leg, the injuries will cancel each other out. For everyone's sake, this seems like the best case scenario. Nobody wants to see an injury detract from what could be a historic Game 7.
But with Perkins out, the whole Celtics team changes. Boston fans are fond of saying "it's 4-on-5 with Perk out there on offense." But he's also their best rebounder, a perfect sidekick to KG on defense, and an integral piece of what's made Boston so successful this series—playing great defense, and grind-it-out offense. Now, instead of Perkins, the Celtics get Rasheed Wallace, maybe the most immature veteran in NBA History, and Glen Davis, an undersized bull-in-a-china shop. Let's assess them separately.
1. I love 'Sheed. Really. He's one of my top five favorites of all time. He got kicked out of the McDonald's All-American game for God's sake. How can you hate someone like that?
Plus, he's immensely fun to watch. His post defense is usually pretty impeccable, and in his prime, his inside-outside game was the sort of thing that you knew was bad strategy—players with Sheed's footwork and touch should be in the post all the time—and yet, it still worked like 80% of the time. He also once responded to a police officer inquiring about marijuana possession by saying, "Nah, we smoked it all up."
He's really the best. This is what Isaiah Rider could have been.
But at this point, it's Russian Roulette for the Celtics every time he steps on the court. Sometimes he kills his team, sometimes they live. When the best case scenario for a player is, "He didn't kill us out there," that's a bad sign. With Perkins gone, the Celtics defense gets worse, and their offense now includes Rasheed Wallace, which means less offensive rebounding, and more errant three-pointers with 15 seconds on the shot clock.
2. Big Baby. Unlike Rasheed, there's no question that Glen "Big Baby" Davis has been an incredibly valuable asset for the Celtics throughout the playoffs. But Big Baby has the same problem as most role players. For 25 minutes a night, against mostly backups, he's fantastic.
Play him against starters, for 35 minutes, and his limitations become more obvious, his contributions more sporadic, and instead of lifting the second unit, he's laboring to keep pace with players like Pau Gasol, who's just plain, better than him.
Maybe one of these guys will come up big for Boston, and they certainly have before. But it's never a good thing when you need guys like Big Baby or Rasheed in order to have a chance. Under normal circumstances, a lights-out performance from either guy can shift the balance of a game, but when you need them to play great just to keep things balanced in the first place, it could prove problematic.
NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS, WHO ARE WE DEFINITELY ROOTING AGAINST?
Is Sasha Vujacic the Cristiano Ronaldo of the NBA, or is it the other way around?
Either way, comparing someone to Sasha Vujacic or Cristiano Ronaldo is a terrible, terrible mark of shame. And while I'd never advocate violence, destroying Cristiano Ronaldo's brand new wax statue would be one of the top five most satisfying things I've ever done as a sports fan. That's on the bucket list.
PHOTO: DID KEVIN GARNETT GO INTO LABOR DURING GAME 6?
Yep, he did. Kobe Bryant's the labor coach. Pau Gasol's the crazy intense father. And Derek Fisher? Well, Derek Fisher is the guy covered with Garnett's amniotic fluid. Tough break for ole D-Fish.
WHAT MAKES THIS SERIES SO SPECIAL?
A few weeks ago, when I talked to Bill Bradley about the NBA, he had to this to say about similarities he sees in today's game: "If you win a championship, you win it doing many of the same things you had to do when we won championships. You have to be unselfish. You have to work very hard. You have to be resilient. You have to have a passion for what you do."
And that's mostly true. The virtues Bradley cites are prerequisites for any championship team, just like rebounding and good defense. Certain qualities of NBA success are universal.
Which is why it's so crazy to see two teams this different get this close to an NBA Championship. I mean, we're talking polar opposites. Let's take the teams separately.
1. The Lakers. From the moment the buzzer sounded and they won the title last year, they've been favorites to repeat as NBA champs. And here they are, meeting the expectations, one win away from fulfilling their destiny. That's number one. This team's supposed to be here, and they're here—that's a bigger accomplishment than you think. LeBron was supposed to be here, too, you know?
Then there's the team's two leaders, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson. You really couldn't find a stranger pairing in sports. With Kobe, you've got the oft-autonomous dictator on the court, dazzling the world with impossible shots and unshakable will, constantly driving himself to be better, and prone to insecurity. Then there's Phil, sitting high above his peers—literally and figuratively, with that gigantic orthotics chair he's got on the sidelines—secure in his legacy, and prone to lean on a sardonic, bemused wit in the face of all the chaos in the contemporary game.
Phil, with his serene detachment, and Kobe, with his superhuman determination. Both of them are as good as anybody in the NBA, but together, the mix is just surreal. Those two set a perfect tone for the rest of the roster, too. Back in May, I wrote this about the Lakers:
They've thrown together a cartoonish gang of personalities, and because they're all really, really good at basketball, it works. And you know, even if you hate them on the court, you have to appreciate the theater of it. And wonder: Pau Gasol, Ron Artest, Andrew Bynum, Kobe Bryant, Adam Morrison, DJ Mbenga... How do these guys relate to each other?
It works because they have so much talent, all the differences and conflicting personalities don't even matter. If Pau Gasol can get his head together for four games in any given series, the Lakers should win. Same with Lamar Odom, Ron Artest, or Andrew Bynum staying healthy. There's so many variables with the Lakers, but if just one breaks in their favor, next to Kobe and with Phil on the bench, that's all they need. This is why they've been the favorites all along.
But I overlooked one thing back then. On the court, Kobe dwarfs them all. You can see it crunch time. Everyone expects him to take over the game. It's his team. But because he's only one player, he can't always take over the game. So, it doesn't always work.
2. Then you have the Boston Celtics. With Boston, there's no true superstar. Their best player is too young to do that distinction justice, their leaders are too old to wear it honestly, and their success this postseason has never really been linked to just one guy. It sounds trite, but the Celtics are a team in the purest sense. Right? That has to be it.
Because otherwise, there's not a lot of rhyme or reason to what's made them so successful this postseason. L.A.'s more talented. Orlando was more talented. Cleveland was just as talented.
The team's built on a foundation of creaky knees, sore backs, and the frenetic energy of a bunch bi-polar bench players. At no point in the postseason have they had the best player in a given playoff series. Game-to-game, their veterans alternate between ancient or ageless.
The common thread, then, isn't the talent. It's not like Boston's got a terrible roster—their bench is better than most teams, including Los Angeles—but just on paper, they probably shouldn't have gotten this far. What's set them apart is a singleness of purpose. Everyone from that team is on the same page. They're all desperate to win an NBA title, and willing to forsake their own well-being to get there. That, and almost to a man, you can't question the Celtics' mental toughness for even a second. They are old, injured, and there's nobody that consistently steps up for them.
But time and again, someone steps up when they need it, and every time we count them out, the Celtics respond by exceeding our expectations. It sounds like we're wrapping ourselves in the blanket of cliche again, but the results speak for themselves. The Celtics have beaten two teams they were supposed to lose to, and at least twice this series, they've battled back to stay alive against a Lakers team that should have beaten them.
3. Why is this so great? Because with the NBA Finals, we almost never see a contrast like this. Usually, there's a team that's clearly superior, and even when there's not, the keys to success are usually similar. Here, they're completely different, and we really have no idea what model will win out in the end.
Even you hate both franchises and the rhetoric that accompanies them with every matchup, you have to appreciate the interplay here. Just look at the series' key matchup, Pau Gasol vs. Kevin Garnett. Everything Pau lacks, Garnett has in spades. Mental and physical toughness, burning desire, chest-thumping leadership. And just the same, everything Garnett lacks—youth, athleticism, scoring—comes to Gasol naturally. It's a microcosm of the series, in general.
Sports gives us a lot of great matchups, but there's not much better than two polar opposites going head-to-head and playing each other dead even before one triumphs in the end.
WHAT WOULD BE THE MOST MEMORABLE OUTCOME?
Celtics win a close game in the fourth quarter. Easy. Their run through the playoffs has been one of the bigger surprises in the history of the playoffs, and if they cap it with a title, it's something we'll remember for decades to come.
Plus, there's the whole Kobe aspect of it. If L.A. wins, he enters a conversation with some of the greatest guards to ever play the game. But first of all, that doesn't necessarily mean he's better than any of them, and frankly, comparing him to Magic Johnson is probably a little unfair to Magic. Second, wouldn't it be more interesting if he lost? As we said earlier, "there's never been a player as good as Kobe to have such a glaring hole in his resume." But if the Lakers lose on Thursday... "Kobe never beat the Celtics."
Then again, the Lakers winning back-to-back titles would be remarkable in its own right, and perhaps the start of a dynasty. So, ether way, we're probably going to remember this series for a long time.
WHAT'S ONE THING THAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN FOR THE CELTICS TO WIN?
So far this series, when Kevin Garnett shows up and plays well on offense and defense, Boston's undefeated. It affects Pau Gasol's performance for L.A., and it lifts his Celtics teammates, allowing the offense to go inside-out, taking pressure off the three stars on Boston's perimeter. If Boston fans could pick one player to definitely play well, it'd be Garnett. They need his rebounding, his defense, and his offense. Some combination of Rondo, Pierce, and Ray Allen will have to deliver from the perimeter, but it all starts with KG.
WHAT'S ONE THING THAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN FOR THE LAKERS TO WIN?
There are a number of things that could happen that'd give the Lakers a win. If Pau Gasol or Lamar Odom has a big game, if they get out to a big first half lead, if Ron Artest can shut down Paul Pierce... If any of those things happen, the Lakers should win the NBA Championship. Of course, that's all assuming that Kobe Bryant plays well. Given his track record so far this postseason, it's hard to imagine him going cold in the biggest moment possible, but you never know. Anyway, that's the only thing the Lakers "need." As long as Kobe's hitting on all cylinders, they've got the edge.
FINALLY, WHO'S GOING TO WIN GAME 7 OF THE 2010 NBA FINALS?
I've gone back-and-forth on this the past few days. Before the series, I picked the Lakers. But thinking about it, and writing about it, I can't shake the notion that Boston's title is meant to be. Re-read the descriptions of both teams.
Team #1: "...they have so much talent, all the differences and conflicting personalities don't even matter."
Team #2: "...they probably shouldn't have gotten this far. What's set them apart is a singleness of purpose."
My head says the Lakers win because they have the best player, more talent, and they're playing at home. But then, with all the energy that comes with a Game 7, we're almost guaranteed to have a sloppy, ugly game—exactly as Boston wants.
Plus, look at the descriptions above. How could you choose the first team over the second? It just feels wrong. Have sports cliches taught you nothing? It's Game 7. Intangibles matter, and in one game, anything can happen. That includes an undermanned Celtics team shocking the Lakers, and proving that a true team can really beat a team of individuals. What sets them apart is singleness of purpose. The head says L.A., but my heart says Boston.
Ask your favorite old sportswriter: Game 7's all about heart. Celtics 88, Lakers 83.