NBA Finals Lakers Celtics Game 7: A Legacy Equinox

There’s no more basketball after tonight. Not for five months, anyway. So you’d better enjoy this.

These are the two best teams, according to the metric we use to determine that value (most wins from mid-April through June). So you’d better enjoy this.

This is a Game 7, so you’d better enjoy it.

I’m not simply being a promoter for my favorite sport when I say that NBA Game 7’s are entirely different from the other sports that entertain series. In baseball, there are specific moments that live forever, and certainly memorable pitching performances. A key hit. Things of that nature. And in hockey, there’s certainly the propensity given the scoring nature of the game for moments of unequaled tension and intensity. But basketball more than any other sport holds the potential for individual players to exert their will on a game. It’s where greatness often meets greatness, especially for these two franchises. It’s everything we love about sports. That’s cliche, but then again, so is this series.

Take a look at the list of best Finals performances in a loss from Basketball Reference.  That list is crushing to me, because of so many players that never won a ring, and to have those performances on the biggest stage. One really stuck out to me. Stockton with 16 points on 6 of 10 shooting, 12 assists, 3 rebounds, and 3 steals. In a loss. That set the tone for the rest of the series. I just can’t imagine having gotten to the top, put in that kind of performance, and coming up short. Anyway, take that list and sort it. 5 of the top 25 point totals in a loss in the Finals on that list are from LA-Boston ’08 and LA-Boston ’10.  20% of the top 25 Finals performances that ended up not mattering came between these two teams. Individual greatness isn’t good enough. The whole damn roster has to chip in, AND you have to have quality star performances.

Wishing for a truly great game seems like a risk to me. These playoffs have been dreadful, outside of a handful of moments, and in general have been leading us down a path of fulfillment wrapped in bitterness. We got Lakers Celtics, at the price of a full blown LeBron meltdown and the Suns’ effort and heart being for naught. But there’s always that hope. That last, fleeting hope that this will be one of those games. The kind you remember for the rest of your life. It has to be to make a mark. You see, either way, this championship doesn’t mean much independently. I’m not trying to be a buzzkill, but if you were ask Bill Simmons of his most memorable Celtics championship games, would this one crack the top five? Even more modern-focused Celtic fans would probably list that Game 6 in 2008 as the defining one for them. It’s a product of what happens when you have 32 championships between you. But a special game could overcome all that. If it features both of these teams, at their best, which we really haven’t seen yet, it could become one of those things that’s talked about for years. Where you remember where you were, who you were with, how it felt.

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This isn’t to say that the game has no meaning to its players. Instead, it’s crucial. While #5 for Bryant isn’t as important as #6, #4, or #1 (or really #3), he obviously can’t get to six without it. It’s a separation from Shaq, and stabbing Boston in the throat hold special value as well. The second one puts Gasol in rarefied air, and if he’s going to wind up in the Hall, he’ll need this one and one more. For Odom, it’s going to cement his place in the Laker’s sub-pantheon. One contributing headcase is a footnote, but doing it on multiple championship teams gives him a place in the team’s history. He’ll never be top billing, but he’ll have a place. Phil Jackson blah, blah, blah. Derek Fisher’s an especially relevant component. Five championships, and he may not return next season, depending on how much Phil buys into his ability to stave off the ghosts of time for another year. He’s going to have a very rough next year and a half of his life, with the CBA deal approaching, and this is a moment he should take to cherish, when basketball was all that mattered and he was the starting point guard for a championship team. Crazy Pills? Gets to flip his detractors a middle finger with a ring on it, and redeems himself of all the strikes against him, in his mind. Adam Morrison gets something else he can sell when he’s destitute and living in a refrigerator box in ten years.

For Pierce? He’ll never be in with the 80’s crew. But this puts him in his own level below it. The favorite son, and past the concerns of just being a flash in the pan. Garnett and Allen join the ranks of the multiple winners. A single title gets you in the door and gets you a place among your own time’s peers. A second win puts you into a tier with the all-time great champions. I’m not sure why, I’m just told it does. If the first one is for you, to validate your career to yourself, the second is to validate it to all the greats who flash multiple rings. For Glen Davis? The opportunity of a lifetime. To cement a legacy within the first few years of your career, collect rings, and then ride off into money-soaked sunset, always able to say “I know what it takes to win a championship.” Rondo puts himself on pace for a more-talented Sam Cassell trajectory, with two championships early in his career and nothing but upside. A chance to give back to the guys that helped mentor him into a position to be elite at this level.

Doc Rivers may have the most to gain from this game. If he decides to walk away for his family, this game puts him as the only multiple ring Boston championship coach from outside of Red’s tree. He can walk away as one of the few coaches with multiple rings, having gone from one of the worst-regarded coaches in the league (2007) to one of the best.

Legacies have a steeper climb since the 80’s. That’s the mark you’re set at. Kobe’s got it worse, having to climb not only the 80’s Showtime crew, but Mount Jordan as well. It’s started to strike me as absurd, how often we use “He’s no Jordan!” as some kind of detractor. The man’s on the verge of winning his fifth championship ring within a decade, with Ron Artest and Derek Fisher as two of his starters.

If legacies have become liquid, never cementing until they reach their hottest temperature, then nothing solidifies tonight. But it’s a vital part of the story for all careers involved, and with no tomorrow, literally, in the 2009-2010 NBA Season, you have to believe anything can happen.
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LA is winning this game. I got out of my car this morning and realized it. I tend to have either no sense whatsoever about an important game, or a very strong one. Which isn’t to say these feelings are at all accurate. I’m usually more accurate when I have a strong emotional reaction to the game. I woke up in January of 2004 and knew, absolutely, in my heart of hearts, that the Chiefs, despite their best season in over a decade, were going to lose to the Colts. It was arguably the most important game of my life after the age of 12 and I knew, 100%, we would lose. It wasn’t brought on by masochism or negativity, I was just sure of it. I knew the Suns were going to lose Game 6 versus San Antonio in 2007. That said, I don’t really care about this game. A self-aggrandizing, self-entitled, pampered franchise will win tonight, and a self-aggrandizing, self-entitled, pampered franchise will lose tonight. As I said, it’s another in a long line of titles. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great theater, and I’ve really enjoyed these Finals. While we haven’t seen both teams at their best in a game so far, we have seen some entertaining basketball.  It’s best for the sport, best for the league, best for the fans when these two franchises meet and it goes seven. I’m merely saying that while I feel very strongly LA will win, I don’t have any emotional attachment to that prediction.

But LA is winning. Perkins’ injury is one of those things that pierces the chest plate and gets to the ventricles. Davis is a terrific bench player but probably not adept at stopping the starting line. Pierce has been terrific, but if the Lakers’ help defense has its head out of its ass, you can cut off the places Pierce wants to go and he’ll force it. Ron Artest will probably hit a few big shots and disappoint in terms of being the wacky true self he’s been for three games in this series.

I told a colleague the other day that basketball, for all its complexity and motion, all its strategy and reactions, is still largely vulnerable to the simple physical attributes of its players. The Lakers are tall. And that’s why they’ll win. I can give you talk about their transition defense, or their inside-out work, about how the overload defense won’t allow for cross-court passes to Allen or Sheed, about Kobe’s drive-and-post work, or Odom’s righty move against Davis forcing him left. But at the end of it? The Lakers are tall. And tall guys win at basketball.

Analysis.

Enjoy Game 7, everyone.

Matt Moore

Matt Moore is a Senior NBA Blogger for CBSSports.com's Eye on Basketball blog, weekend editor of Pro Basketball Talk on NBCSports.com, and co-editor of Voice on the Floor. He lives in Kansas City due to an unbelievably complex set of circumstances and enjoys mid-90's pop rock, long walks on the beach and the novels of Tim Sandlin.