Thursday June 17th, 2010

LOS ANGELES -- I say the Celtics will win Game 7 of the NBA Finals. I say this with the understanding that I will likely be wrong. The Lakers have the best player in Kobe Bryant and the winningest coach in Phil Jackson. They are the defending champions and they will have home-court advantage Thursday night.

Yet I predict the depth of Boston playmakers will offset the Lakers' strengths. My pick in October was for the Celtics to upset Los Angeles in the Finals, and recent events compel me to stick with that opinion. The Celtics have knocked off three MVP finalists in the playoffs thus far -- Miami's Dwyane Wade (who finished fifth), Cleveland's LeBron James (MVP for the second year in a row) and Orlando's Dwight Howard (No. 4), with the latter two starring for teams that held home-court advantage over Boston -- by moving the ball and trusting in any number of scorers to make the right play.

Do not dwell on the Celtics' 89-67 loss in Game 6. They'll bring maximum effort Thursday and at the very least force a tightly played contest. I give them the edge because they have so many players who are likely to perform well under the pressure of Game 7, between the four current or former All-Stars in their starting lineup, Rasheed Wallace, Glen (Big Baby) Davis, Michael Finley and even Nate Robinson. All of them have made big plays in their careers.

"I've always thought Game 7 is the ultimate player game,'' Boston coach Doc Rivers said. "It's the game that all the things you've worked on all year, you have to do it and execute it and trust and play.''

I spoke with a number of NBA team executives Wednesday who believed unanimously that the Lakers will win for the following reasons:

• Down the stretch the Lakers will have the ultimate weapon in Bryant, who is the most ruthless and talented closer in basketball.

• If Pau Gasol emerges as the second-best player on the floor -- which would be no surprise -- the Lakers should win.

Derek Fisher has a long tradition of making big shots in the biggest games, and he could make the difference for Los Angeles.

• The absence of Boston center Kendrick Perkins, who suffered a knee injury in Game 6, may provide Lakers center Andrew Bynum with the space to overcome his own chronic knee injury to block shots and dominate the boards.

Lamar Odom is the most talented sixth man on either team.

My minority view is that the Celtics can rebound as a team -- especially via Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce -- to overcome L.A.'s size advantage of Gasol and Bynum. Neither team will realize a lot of space offensively as both defenses will be getting back in transition and closing out to the shooters harder than ever.

The game will turn into an interesting contrast of styles. The Lakers will be counting on big performances from Bryant and Gasol, while the Celtics will be seeking to develop balanced scoring throughout their rotation.

"Having Kobe on our side is huge,'' Gasol said. "He's the best player out there, and his determination, his desire of winning and his tremendous level of skill and talent gives you a huge plus. I think he's going to be ready no matter what, and he wants to win this as much as anybody.''

When asked if he needed an exceptional performance from Rondo, here was Rivers' answer: "I just need him to be him. I don't need anyone to be great.''

Rivers' emphasis was for Rondo, Davis and other Celtics to play instinctively, to trust in each other and to win as a team.

"I just love the pressure, truthfully,'' Pierce said. "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, I probably won't be mentioned amongst the other guys in Celtic history that's done it before. That type of stuff motivates me. That type of stuff, I think, helps me play at my best when I'm put to that type of test. To win another championship would be the best thing that can ever happen.''

Bryant was less concerned with winning his fifth career championship that would equal the achievement of fellow Laker Magic Johnson two decades ago; he'll deal with those records when he's done playing, he insisted.

"I just go out there and play hard,'' he said. "I play hard all the time, so I don't need to do anything different for Game 7.''

I won't be surprised if the Lakers win. I will, however, be shocked if the game isn't close and relatively low-scoring as the two winningest franchises in league history approach the final five minutes. Over the two weeks of the Finals each team has responded by winning the game it has had to win. Now at last they both face the same predicament, and the same opportunity. Will the better team be led by the superior couple of players or by the deeper blend of talent?

We'll know the answer soon enough.

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