The Celtics and Lakers will meet again here Thursday in Game 7, and no winner-take-all event in any sport could matter more. The Celtics took a bullet for fans everywhere (outside New England, of course) by coming out sluggishly in Game 6 to encourage the Lakers' 89-67 win. Boston could have finished off the season Tuesday, but that would have been anticlimactic and premature. Now everybody wins.
"This is definitely a special treat for the NBA,'' said Boston guard Ray Allen. "We're going to Game 7, and this is the Finals, and it's the Celtics and Lakers.''
It's the best of all worlds -- the instantly gratifying drama of an NCAA tournament game starring the sport's two greatest franchises. I'm counting at least five future Hall of Famers in this game, figuring on Kobe Bryant, Boston's three elderly stars and Pau Gasol, a multiple All-Star and reigning NBA champion who has long been a star in the summer FIBA tournaments.
Boston coach Doc Rivers has reminded his starters how they've never lost a playoff series when fully intact. But now, the Celtics may be without Kendrick Perkins, whose knee injury belongs in a story told by Homer. The Lakers' losses in Games 4 and 5 at Boston had everything to do with the torn meniscus of center Andrew Bynum, whose production declined in inverse proportion to the swelling of his right knee. The Lakers already were beginning to pull ahead 18-12 in Game 6 when Perkins, while positioned flawlessly under the basket for a rebound, was knocked down from behind accidentally by Bynum, who was unable to come to a stop because of his own injury. It was as if Apollo or Hermes or Aphrodite had decided to even the matchup by inflicting calamity upon the Boston center. Both Bynum and Perkins spent the second half unable to play, though the former has a better chance of playing in Game 7 than the latter. "It doesn't look good,'' said Rivers.
"We were a little bit focused on if Perk was going to come back, instead of just continuing to play,'' said Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, who considers Perkins his best friend on the team. "As soon as halftime came, we all just ran to the training room to see how he was feeling and if he was OK.''
If Perkins was one of many reasons for their loss in Game 6, the Celtics hope he will inspire them to win Game 7. "We have to do this for him,'' said Allen.
This rivalry always touches on larger themes. The Lakers-Celtics of two decades ago was all about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird -- black vs. white, designer satin vs. off-the-rack polyester. This incarnation of the rivalry is about the great player vs. the team. Bryant will be leading out front, which has been the winning formula for most of the championships in the last 30 years. The Celtics, who are either too old or too young to dominate individually, will be leaning upon one another, and in this league -- and particularly in Bryant's building -- that makes them the underdog's underdog.
The only contributor to the Lakers' rotation who doesn't own a championship ring is Ron Artest, hired last summer to do unto Paul Pierce as he did here in Game 6. He shackled Pierce for five turnovers and 13 points on 6-of-14 shooting with no trips to the free-throw line, while at the other end of the court Artest played in rhythm and free of apparent pressure for the first time in this Finals, smoothly drilling half of the six threes. That he did so in the most important game of his career speaks to Artest's enigmatic unpredictability.
The two Celtics who are new to this intensive setting are backup point guard Nate Robinson, who by all accounts will be oblivious to the pressures of Game 7, and big man Shelden Williams.
It was Williams who concluded the opening half of Game 2 by attempting an unfortunate outlet pass to midcourt (Rondo could be seen shouting No! as the ball flared overhead) that was intercepted by Bryant, who moved in like a calm shark to nail a three to bring newfound encouragement to the Lakers (who went in trailing by six points despite seven first-half threes from Allen). As Rivers watched from midcourt, he buckled visibly in disappointment; but he waited there to greet Williams with a fist bump and a nodding, "It's OK.'' In the locker room afterward, he forcefully reminded Williams that all was indeed OK and that he needed to stay engaged because the Celtics were going to need him, which in turn inspired his teammates to tell him the same kind of things, and now it's a good thing they did. Because they likely will need him to help fill in for Perkins in a Game 7 in which every rebound and outlet pass will influence the title.
The Lakers will look forward to a big game from Gasol, who responded to his dismal Game 5 effort with a near triple-double Tuesday: 17 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists to go with three blocked shots. "Experience is always a huge plus, especially when you face these kinds of games and these kinds of situations,'' he said. "I've been fortunate throughout my career that I've experienced a few, and it puts me in a better place to be able to face it and be successful.''
The Celtics will be counting on the return to form of Allen, who had missed 21 straight threes before making 2-of-5 among his 19 points here in Game 6. Allen had been held out of practice for all but 10 minutes since being kneed in the thigh by Artest in the opening quarter of Game 3, which left him with a swollen leg and a flattened jump shot.
"My legs are where they need to be right now,'' he said. "We've got some ballers on our team, guys that are ready to play. You can't shake a lot of the guys' characters here on this team. We're a group of trash-talking guys, we compete at everything we do, everybody believes they can make the shot or stop the guy from scoring. When it comes to Game 7, it's like this is what we were born to do.''
The Celtics are going to need that attitude; in the history of the NBA Finals, there have been 16 Game 7s, with the home team winning 13.
But Bryant is so prepared for a Game 7 against the rival of rivals that he appears unfazed by it the Lakers' historical advantage. "No different to me,'' he said, rubbing at his jaw. "I don't mean to be a buzzkill, but it's not. I know what's at stake, but I'm not tripping. It's a game we've got to win, simple as that.''
Two things can be said of this all-or-nothing game. The first is that rebounding will be the most important indicator, as it was in Game 6 (to a frightening 52-39 advantage for Los Angeles), as it has been throughout the Finals. The second is the result of Game 6 will have no impact or influence on Game 7. The teams have taken turns challenging one another, with the Lakers making the effort for loose balls one night and the Celtics responding, in kind, to win the effort game the next time, and back and forth they've gone as if by gentleman's agreement.
But there will be nothing gentlemanly about Game 7. Let the shots be falling for both teams, and may the referees let them play.