LOS ANGELES -- The two best words in the language, besides perhaps world peace, are Game 7. Add Lakers-Celtics to the sentence, along with NBA Finals, and you have arguably the most alluring concoction in sports.
The Lakers' Phil Jackson has won 10 championships, but he's never coached a Game 7 in the Finals. The Celtics' Big Three has been around for a combined 41 seasons, but Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen have never played a Game 7 in the Finals. This is like witnessing a comet over the Hollywood Hills, basketball's premier rivals meeting on basketball's ultimate stage, a significant chunk of NBA history on the line. If the Celtics win, they own this three-year period. If the Lakers win, they do. If the Celtics win, they have three more all-time championships than the Lakers. If the Lakers win, they are only one away from the Celtics. If the Celtics win, KobeBryant would be hard-pressed to retire with as many titles as Michael Jordan. If the Lakers win, he could catch him next June.
Handicapping the game is fruitless, considering how the rest of the series has unfolded. The Celtics get blown out in Game 1, so of course they come back to win Game 2. The Lakers gut out Game 3, so of course they fold up in Game 4. The Celtics take control in Game 5, so of course they no-show in Game 6. It's as though the teams wanted seven as well.
The theme of this series has been the lack of theme, how each game exists in a vacuum, one portending nothing about the next. But a few trends have developed along the way. The team that wins the rebounding margin wins the game. The team that gets to the 50-50 balls wins the game. The bench matters. Here are five other determining factors in a game that will determine a series that will determine a championship that will determine a lot about an era:
Now they both have bum knees, and while Andrew Bynum will test it once more, Kendrick Perkins is out after tearing his MCL and PCL in Game 6. With Perkins in a suit, there is not as much pressure on Bynum to log extensive minutes. The Lakers will have a size advantage regardless; anything he provides is a bonus. The Lakers showed Tuesday that they can hold down the paint without their starting center. The Celtics did not. They will need RasheedWallace to play bigger, Glen Davis to play taller and both to play smarter.
They grew up together in Queens, playing on the same AAU teams, dreaming of NBA glory. When Ron Artest came to L.A. last summer, much was made of his relationship with Bryant, but the stronger link was to Lamar Odom. They both have been wild cards throughout their careers, dominating and disappearing. They were largely dormant through the first five games of this series before finally erupting in Game 6. The Lakers cannot expect the same in Game 7, but they need at least one of them to find some measure of consistency. The season could come down to Odom and Artest, frightening or reassuring depending on where you stand.
They may be old, they may be tired, but they are not finished. There is a reason Pierce, Garnett and Allen have never lost a playoff series together. They do not allow it to happen, even when they are on the road, even when they are up against a younger and seemingly more talented team. The three have had a decent series -- not a great one -- which suggests their finest hour is to come. "This is what we were born to do," said Allen, his tone conveying what his words would not: Win or lose, they are going to fight like hell.
When you strip away everything else -- the injuries, the coaches, the role players -- you are left simply with the best player in the world on his home floor and the thing he cares about most in the balance. Perhaps he cares too much and will try to take over too early and therefore swing momentum to the Celtics. But that is a sucker's bet. For everything Bryant has accomplished -- and the list is long -- his Finals experiences have been relatively anticlimactic. This is his Finals moment, the biggest game of his life, and he treasures it too much to muck it up.
By now it is a tired topic, all the whistles that have been blown in this series, but Game 7s are like the last minute of fourth quarters. Officials generally get out of the way. Usually, a more physical game would favor the Celtics, though they lose a lot of muscle without Perkins. This has been a close series and it will likely be a close game, decided not by calls but by bounces: Who gets loose balls? Who makes free throws? Who finishes layups? It is basic stuff, but in Game 7, tensions run as high as stakes. These are not young teams, and at this point, both are exhausted. They are working on their seventh wind, preparing for their final push.