In a series that has been completely unpredictable, there was a certain inevitability to Tuesday night’s outcome as if the NBA Finals were destined to go the distance.
But before the conspiracy theorists among you start pointing fingers in David Stern’s direction, just read what Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo had to say in the wake of the Lakers’ 89-67 Game 6 win that forced Thursday night’s winner-take-all conclusion to the 2009-10 NBA season.
"No," Rondo said when asked if he was surprised that the series was going the distance. "You know, it’s Lakers-Celtics, the biggest rivalry in NBA basketball, seven games. It is what it is."
Rondo didn’t expound on exactly what this is, so we’ll do it for him.
It’s — clichés be damned — the ultimate do-or-die, win-or-go-home, for-all-the-marbles moment in professional sports. It’s a fitting conclusion to the most evenly contested NBA Finals in over a decade. It’s the latest, greatest chapter in the most storied rivalry in basketball history and it’s a more than worthy addition to that already epic tale.
The one thing it isn’t, however, is anything close to predictable.
Don’t get me wrong. It certainly seems as if momentum has swung convincingly in the Lakers’ direction. Not only do they have history on their side (home teams have won 13 of the 16 Game 7s that have been played in the NBA Finals), the injury to Kendrick Perkins should give the Lakers the advantage in the one statistical category (team rebounding) that has proven a reliable predictor of Finals success.
There’s also the well-documented theory regarding role players and the road — a premise that found ample support in Game 6. At least for one game, home cooking was all Kobe Bryant’s supporting cast needed to make a return appearance in the series, as Pau Gasol’s near-triple double, Ron Artest’s accuracy from beyond the arc and Lamar Odom’s effort on the glass kept Bryant from needing to go it alone. Conversely, Boston’s bench’s disappearing act in Game 6 — through three quarters, the Celtics reserves were being outscored by their Lakers counterparts, 23-0 — was a primary culprit behind the second-lowest scoring night in NBA Finals history.
But momentum has proven to be maddeningly elusive in this series. It wasn’t until Game 5 that a team managed to string together back-to-back wins. And it’s worth noting that while the Lakers may be prohibitive favorites to claim the Larry O’Brien trophy on their home court, they’re still looking for their first two-game winning streak vs. the Celtics this season.
Bryant appeared to be well aware of that fact Tuesday night when he was asked what effect the Game 6 rout would have on Game 7’s outcome.
"It doesn’t affect it at all," he said. "You’ve got to forget about this game as you forget about a tough loss. Forget about it, move onto the next one."
And when it comes to the next one, it really is anyone’s ball game.
It’s been pointed out ad nauseum that the team that’s won the rebounding battle has won all six games in this series. But level of desperation has been an equally accurate — if much less discussed — barometer.
In Game 1, the pressure was on the Lakers to hold serve at home, while demonstrating this wasn’t going to be a repeat of 2008. One game later, the Celtics needed a win to avoid an 0-2 hole. As the series moved to Boston, L.A. had to get at least one win to ensure a return to Southern California and wasted no time getting it. In Game 4, the Celtics were playing to avoid going down 3-1, a deficit no team has ever rallied from in the NBA Finals. In Game 5, they were trying to avoid going back to L.A. needing to win two games in enemy territory. Tuesday, the Lakers were playing for their playoff lives, and it showed.
Now that both teams are equally desperate for a victory? That’s why Thursday’s outcome is in doubt, no matter how strong the temptation is to proclaim that the Lakers are in the driver’s seat.
There’s no doubting this, though: Effort and energy will play as big a role as momentum and matchups. Maybe even bigger.
"The effort is going to be great by both teams," Celtics head coach Doc Rivers said. "It’s really going to come down to the execution. You know, one team will do that and one team will question it at some point in the game. We’ll see."
"It’s really a high-tension situation," Lakers head coach Phil Jackson concurred. "Players have come down to putting a lot on the line at this particular point. A lot of times, it’s not about the coaching at that point. They’ve already got it in them. It’s about who comes out and provides the energy on the floor and plays the kind of game and dictates the kind of game they want to dictate."
And regardless of what Kobe may have to say on the subject ("It’s a game we’ve got to win, simple as that," he insisted. "I’m not going crazy over it."), Game 7 will be something special, no matter the result. In the 26 years since the Lakers and Celtics last met in a winner-take-all showdown, we’ve seen just three NBA Finals go the distance. This is the 13th NBA Finals that Jackson has coached in, but the first time he will take the sideline for a Game 7.
It’s why, despite the lopsided nature of Game 6, the sense prevails that something epic awaits us Thursday. And it’s why it makes so much sense that an entire season will come down to 48 minutes of basketball.
"When it comes to Game 7, it’s like this is what we were born to do," Celtics guard Ray Allen said. "It’s like if we were born, our mothers said we would be in Game 7 of the NBA Finals some day and nobody would blink an eye because we would say that’s where we’re supposed to be. So we’re looking forward to it."