Kobe Bryant yawned when he leaned back on the Los Angeles Lakers' bench to watch his teammates running through their final practice of the season.
That cool outer demeanor revealed none of the urgency running through Bryant's head. He knows the singular stakes when the Lakers host the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the NBA finals Thursday night, and he isn't afraid to raise them even higher.
"I've said the whole season, (if) you don't win a championship, it's a failure," said Bryant, who hopes to have his hand full with a fifth championship ring. "It's as simple as that."
Nine months of preparation and eight weeks of postseason play for the NBA's two most decorated franchises will culminate in one pressure-packed game at Staples Center. Such showdowns once occurred regularly in the finals, including four previous trips to Game 7 for these teams, but this is the finals' first Game 7 since 2005 and just the third in 22 years.
It's a dream scenario for kids playing hoops in their driveway. It's a crucible of history both for Bryant's Lakers and the Celtics' veteran core. It's also simply an incredibly cool experience, according to the players who are mentally able to savor it.
"I just love the pressure," said Paul Pierce, who leads the Celtics with 18 points per game. "I love the fact that I get to play against the Los Angeles Lakers in a Game 7 on the road. I love the fact that if I don't win multiple championships that I probably won't be mentioned amongst the other guys in Celtic history that have done it before. That type of stuff motivates me. That's what the challenge is for me, every time I put on this Celtic uniform."
The rivalry's history intermingles with the drama in Game 7. The defending champion Lakers are going for their 16th banner, while Boston is playing for its unprecedented 18th title in the NBA's two most successful franchises' second finals meeting in three years.
Exactly two years to the day after the Celtics ended the 2008 finals with perhaps the most frustrating loss of Bryant's career, he has the ultimate chance to make things right.
"(When) I look back, years from now, or even when I was a kid, (if) you'd talk about being in this situation, I'd be really excited," said Bryant, the series' leading scorer with 29.5 points per game. "But when I'm in the moment right now, I've got to play. I've got to focus on that. I can't focus on the hype about it."
Although Boston has the rivalry's Game 7 history on its side, the Celtics also have plenty stacked against them after an embarrassing 89-67 loss in Game 6 Tuesday night.
Boston won't have starting center Kendrick Perkins, who sprained multiple ligaments in his right knee in the first quarter. The Celtics' starting five has never lost a playoff series, but that five must change for Game 7.
Although Perkins is a role player next to Boston's Big Three and point guard Rajon Rondo, the Celtics must hope veteran Rasheed Wallace and youngster Glen Davis can make up for Perkins' inside defense and rebounding.
No visiting team has won an NBA championship in Game 7 since the Washington Bullets did it in 1978, yet the Celtics are a whole lot more worried about the Lakers than the Hollywood crowd.
"It's all-out," Boston's Kevin Garnett said. "It's for the marbles, it's for everything, all-out. You save nothing. You leave nothing."
It's too soon to say where these finals will fit in the rivalry's annals. Although the games had been uniformly competitive before the Lakers' blowout win in Game 6, they haven't been spectacularly played, with gritty defense trumping offense in most of the major moments.
Ray Allen's historic 3-point shooting barrage in Game 2, the Celtics' gritty victories in games 4 and 5, the Lakers' blowout win in Game 6 - all will be dwarfed by what happens in the deciding game.
"I guess it's going to be another decade that people look back and see the formation of this rivalry again," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "The '90s was missed, and the '70s was missed, but the '60s and the '80s were big decades. It seems to skip a decade, doesn't it?"
The Celtics have more experience in seventh games than the Lakers over the past three years, playing in two deciding games in 2008 and two more last year. Boston coach Doc Rivers thinks his club's big-game toughness mostly grew from those high stakes.
"It's the ultimate players' game," said Rivers, a New York guard when the Knicks lost Game 7 of the 1994 finals in Houston. "Unfortunately, I've coached in a lot of them over the last few years - or fortunately. All the things you've worked on all year, you have to do it, and execute it, and trust and play."
Los Angeles is in just its second Game 7 of the past three seasons, but that's because the Lakers have been better at avoiding trouble while winning 10 playoff series since Pau Gasol joined them in 2008. When faced with elimination Tuesday for the first time in these playoffs, the Lakers responded with determination at least partially born from fear, according to Gasol.
"I think about how bad and how much it would hurt if we don't come out as winners," Gasol said. "I keep that thought in my mind sometimes, just to understand that I have to do everything possible out there to help my team in any way I can. You want to leave everything you have out there, and compete as hard as you've ever competed."
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