Road teams have had little luck in Game 7s of NBA Finals
JUN 19, 2013 9:36p ET
MIAMI — The San Antonio Spurs will take any motivation they can get for Thursday’s Game 7 of the NBA Finals. They probably won’t find much by looking up at the rafters.
No team ever would be as foolish as the Los Angeles Lakers in 1969.
Thinking the Lakers finally would break through against the Boston Celtics after six previous losses to them in the Finals, then team owner Jack Kent Cooke was determined to make a splash. So for Game 7 of the Finals at the Forum, Cooke had waiting in the rafters balloons he planned to release after a victory. He even had prepared an itinerary for a post-game celebration that found its way to the Celtics locker room.
“We got a hold of the script before the game and how it was all going to unfold,’’ said John Havlicek, then a star Boston forward. “The balloons were going to fall after the game and they were going to play ‘Happy Days are Here Again.’ That gave us motivation.’’
Did it ever. The aging Celtics had gone 48-34 during what would be the last season for Bill Russell and Sam Jones, while the Lakers, featuring Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, had been 55-27. But Boston upset the Lakers 108-106 for the team’s 11th title in 13 years as Havlicek scored a team-high 26 points.
That marked the first time in NBA history a road team had won Game 7 of the Finals. It hasn’t happened much since then either.
The only other times have been the Celtics winning at Milwaukee in 1974 and Washington breaking through at Seattle in 1978. Overall, home teams are 14-3 in Game 7 of the Finals, including having won the past five.
Those are the long odds the Spurs will face when they step into AmericanAirlines Arena for the first Finals Game 7 since the Lakers, with no balloons in the rafters, defeated the Celtics at home to win the 2010 crown. But if there is another outfit that can break through on the road, the Spurs would seem to be ideal candidates as they go for their fifth title in 15 years.
Like the Celtics of 1969 and 1974, they are a championship-tested team that doesn’t easily get rattled. And even if Washington hadn’t won a title before its 1978 run, that was a veteran team that had at least been to two of the previous seven Finals.
“It will definitely help,’’ guard Tony Parker said of his Spurs having won a Game 7 of the Finals over Detroit in 2005 even if that one was at home. “I think we should be happy about that opportunity to make history (by winning a Game 7 on the road). It’s a great challenge. We know we can beat them here. We just have to do it again.’’
The Spurs won Game 1 92-88 at AmericanAirlines Arena and were in a great position to claim Game 6 on the road Tuesday. But they blew leads of 13 points late in the third quarter and five points with a half minute left in regulation and fell 103-100 in overtime.
San Antonio guard Manu Ginobili admitted after the game he was “devastated’’ and said Wednesday he was “still down.’’ But with Ginobili saying the Spurs face a "great challenge'' winning on the road, he said they must move past Game 6.
“Maybe with what happened (Tuesday) and if we do win and have a great game, it will make it even sweeter,’’ Ginobili said. “We can’t be crying about what happened (in Game 6) and how unlucky we were and all that all life long. Life goes on and we have another shot.’’
Havlicek said the Spurs need to find some motivation. That might not be hard considering what many in the media are spewing out.
“They can use as motivation the fact that nobody thinks they have a chance to win,’’ Havlicek said.
Havlicek knows all about that. Not only did his Celtics beat the odds in 1969, he also was on the Boston team that won five years later at Milwaukee. Havlicek and teammates Don Nelson and Don Chaney are the only players ever to have been on two teams that won road Game 7s in the Finals.
The Celtics were underdogs against a Bucks bunch that featured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. Havlicek sees some similarities to San Antonio’s plight in that Boston also had suffered a devastating Game 6 defeat.
With the Finals not going to a 2-3-2 format until 1985, the Celtics had lost Game 6 at home 102-101 on a sky hook by Abdul-Jabbar with 3 seconds left in double overtime. They then had to travel to Milwaukee for Game 7 two days later.
“We just had to forget about it and play our game,’’ Havlicek recalled. “And (Boston) coach Tom Heinsohn came to me before the game and said, ‘I’m going to use you as a decoy tonight.’ And that surprised them.’’
Havlicek, who had scored 36 points in Game 6 and would be named Finals MVP, managed just 16 in Game 7. But center Dave Cowens scored 28 and the Celtics won 102-87.
Cowens said Heinsohn made another change in Game 7 that surprised the Bucks. He wondered if perhaps San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich needs to shake things up Thursday.
“We made a radical change in Game 7 by deciding to double team Kareem for the first time ever,’’ Cowens said. “Taking players or teams out of their comfort zones and mental familiarities for awhile is effective for short periods of time. Maybe the Spurs should aggressively double team ( Heat star) LeBron (James) as soon as he touches it. … Can't play it safe in a Game 7.’’
At least not on the road.
Bucks forward Bobby Dandridge remembers the loss to the Celtics well. He said it was “devastating’’ and it gnawed at him until training camp began in the fall.
But Dandridge eventually made up for it. He was traded before the 1977-78 season to the Washington Bullets, now known as the Wizards.
The Bullets went just 44-38 during the regular season but surprisingly made it to the Finals, where they faced a Seattle team that hadn’t done much better at 47-35. In a Finals that had an unusual 1-2-2-1-1 format, the Bullets won Game 6 at home 117-82 at home before flying to Seattle for Game 7 three days later.
“I was motivated because of having lost to Boston in 1974,’’ Dandridge said. “Losing that Game 7 was my personal fuel for the rest of my career.’’
Dandridge came up big, scoring 19 points to tie for team-high honors. The Bullets won 105-99 in Game 7 in a Finals that became famous for Washington coach Dick Motta saying, “The opera ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.’’ Although a San Antonio media member had actually used the phrase during a Spurs-Bullets series earlier in the 1978 playoffs, Motta became known for often repeating it during the title run.
Dandridge and then Seattle forward Paul Silas, who had been on the 1974 Celtics, became the first players to have been on both the winning and losing sides when a road team won a Finals Game 7. That hasn’t changed since no road team has won such a game since the Bullets.
“If I was quizzed, I wouldn’t know,’’ Dandridge said of being informed of that fact. “That’s a heck of a long time. It’s been 35 years. You’d think somebody would have done it since us.’’
Nope. The Lakers lost at Boston in Game 7 in 1984, Detroit fell on the road to the Lakers in 1988, New York lost at Houston in 1994, the Pistons dropped that Game 7 at San Antonio in 2005 and the Lakers did to Boston in 2010 what they couldn’t do 41 years earlier.
Heat guard Ray Allen was on the Celtics when they lost Game 7 83-79 three years ago despite having taken a 13-point lead in the third quarter. He’s sure glad to be at home this time in a deciding game.
“That last Game 7 I was a part of, you felt there was just a thickness in the air where everything seemed like it was against you,’’ Allen said. “We just ran out of gas. That’s where when you play in front of your home building, it gives you so much momentum.’’
Coming out of the All-Star break, the Heat had established a goal of trying to get home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. They knew it was important to get Game 7s in Miami whenever possible.
The Heat used that to their advantage in taking Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals over Indiana at AmericanAirlines Arena. Now they’re home for the most pivotal Game 7 in team history.
“It’s why you play 82 games,’’ said Miami center Chris Bosh. “Just in case, you always want that (best) record. I remember (Heat president) Pat Riley, he always says, ‘Just in case you have a Game 7, you want it at home.’ ’’
Riley knows all about that. He coached the Lakers when they won the 1988 Finals Game 7 at home, but was on the losing side as coach on the road in Finals Game 7s for the Lakers in 1984 and Knicks in 1994.
If Riley has any thoughts about how the Heat might celebrate if they win Thursday, don’t expect him to let them get out before tipoff. He certainly won’t be ordering any balloons put up in the rafters.