It doesn't happen every day - or year. In fact, this is only the fifth time in the past 27 years that the series has gone to Game 7. And it's the Lakers vs. the Celtics. Boston has won a league best 17 NBA titles; the Lakers are right behind with 15. To use a couple of sports cliches: It doesn't get any better than this; and (its close relative) this is what it's all about.
Kobe Bryant isn't going to budge. The uber-competitive shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers has been in a deep playoff tunnel the past month or so, not letting anything or anyone -- especially pesky reporters -- distract him from his ultimate goal: a fifth NBA championship. So it wasn't surprising late Tuesday, after the Lakers thrashed the Boston Celtics 89–67 and tied up the NBA Finals at three games apiece, that Bryant stayed in character. No joy over the Lakers' dominating victory, and no thrill at playing a winner-take-all Game 7 between the NBA's two storied franchises.
"No different to me," Bryant said in a monotone. "I hate to be a buzz kill, but it's not. I know what's at stake, but I'm not trippin'."
You'll have to excuse everyone else in the NBA world -- from league Commissioner David Stern to kids on playgrounds from Los Angeles to Boston to Beijing: They are trippin'.
It's Game 7 of the NBA Finals. That doesn't happen every day. Or year. In fact, this is only the fifth time in the past 27 years. And it's the Lakers and the Celtics. To use a couple of sports cliches: It doesn't get any better than this; and (its close relative) this is what it's all about.
Hope For The Best
Let's face it: Despite this marquee match-up in the finals, the greatest rivalry in NBA history hasn't necessarily led to great games. This series has been choppy -- with one team winning, then the other team reacting and winning the next game. It wasn't until Games 4 and 5 that one team, Boston in this case, won two in a row.
Credit the Celtics' and Lakers' great defenses for not allowing the opponent to get on too much of a roll game to game. Credit coaching -- with 10 NBA titles, the Lakers' Phil Jackson numerically is the greatest; the Celtics' Doc Rivers is a widely respected member of a younger generation and is considered a great fit for a Celtics team that Rivers affectionately calls "crazy." In these finals, Jackson and Rivers have responded to each defeat with a new plan for victory that worked the very next game -- until Boston won its two straight.
Throughout the series, there haven't been many times when both teams played their best the same night. Many fans are hoping the nature of a deciding game promises a hard-fought, well-played game for the ages from both sides.
Certainly Boston is ready. These Celtics are well tested in Game 7s -- though not in the finals. Two years ago, Boston won the NBA Title (beating the Lakers), and on the way to the finals, the Celtics beat two tough Eastern Conference teams in Game 7s -- Atlanta and Cleveland. Last year, the Celtics beat a young, talented Chicago Bulls team in Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs. And they did it without star forward Kevin Garnett, who was out with a knee injury.
Boston is without another rock of a starting player Thursday: Beefy center Kendrick Perkins won't play because he hurt his knee in the Game 6 debacle. Perkins doesn't add much to Boston's offense, but he's a huge defensive and rebounding presence. The Celtics haven't announced who they'll start in his place. It'll be either the rangy and temperamental Rasheed Wallace or the more compact and explosive Glen "Big Baby" Davis.
The irony is that going into this series, Boston predicted it would be without Perkins for at least one game. He'd accumulated enough technical fouls during the playoffs that one more and he'd receive a league-mandated game suspension. It was expected that in a heated series against the arch-rival Lakers, Perkins probably would get that next tech. He never did, and then he got injured.
All part of the game, is what veteran shooting guard Ray Allen would say. When asked about his team, now down a starting player, and its chances in Game 7 in front of a hostile crowd, Allen didn't mince words.
"We got some b---- on our team, guys that are ready to play. We're a group of trash-talking guys; we compete at everything we do," Allen said. "Everybody believes they can make the shot or stop the guy from scoring. When it comes to Game 7, this is what we're born to do."
Home Sweet Home
The Lakers could counter Allen's tough talk with numbers: Los Angeles has played 11 home games during these playoffs and won 10. Conversely, in the past three years, Boston has had the chance to clinch a playoff series on an opponent's home court nine times -- the Celtics have succeeded once.
By the end of the third quarter in the Lakers' blowout victory Tuesday, the team's bench players had outscored the Boston bench 24-0. After the game, Boston coach Rivers said: "The home team's bench plays better. Role players are typically more comfortable at home; stars play well everywhere.
"I thought it was a lot of that tonight. I thought their bench was terrific. I thought their bench gave them unbelievable energy -- every single guy."
Rivers is one of those savvy NBA coaches -- San Antonio's Greg Popovich is another -- who plays the regular season to prepare for the playoffs. This season in particular, as key members of the Celtics battled injuries, Rivers was praised for his philosophy: Regular season victories and playoff positioning don't matter as much as getting his team healthy. It looked like genius as the healthy Celtics beat higher-seeded Cleveland and Orlando on the way to the finals. But now, the season has come down to one game, and it's in Los Angeles' Staples Center because the Lakers won more regular season games than Boston and thus were awarded more home games in the final.
If the Lakers' advantage pays dividends Tuesday, will there be questions about Rivers' regular season strategy?
Focus, Tony, Focus!
Then again, let's not start doubting the coaches prematurely. Coaches are very important in an NBA team's chemistry -– but game 7 is about players. Who can withstand the pressure? Who will crumble or lose focus?
To wit: I'm at the Celtics practice session Wednesday, standing with a group of reporters talking to Boston's high-energy bench player Tony Allen. He has spent a lot of time in Bryant's mug during this series, guarding the Lakers superstar as closely as he can. The subject of Game 6 came up, and Allen mentioned how his team lost its focus.
"Why," I asked, "did that happen in such a key game? A victory would've given the Celtics the championship??!!" Allen started to answer and then noticed his BlackBerry buzzing. He picked it up and started reading a message. Yes, I'm still standing there with my microphone pointed at him. After a solid 10 seconds of this, he remembers I am indeed still there, and mumbles, "I don't know, sir."
Hmmmm. Maybe I do, Tony!
Assuming both teams are focused Thursday, and both teams' engines are running at maximum RPMs, who will stand out in a game that'll be instant history? Will the stars come out -- Bryant and Pau Gasol for the Lakers; Paul Pierce, Garnett, Allen, Rajon Rondo for the Celtics? Or will it be like one of those great extra-inning World Series games in baseball, where some utility infielder comes off the bench to deliver the winning hit?
Whoever shines, starters or subs, their team will hoist another banner. It's an embarrassment of riches with these two: Boston has won a league best 17 NBA titles; the Lakers are right behind with 15.
Thursday night, somebody's getting richer. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.