Thursday, June 17, 2010

Game 7: Boston Celtics at L.A. Lakers

Tonight marks perhaps the most significant professional basketball game since at least 1994. While remaining entertaining with the personal exploits of Michael Jordan, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal, the NBA Finals have mostly been devoid of lengthy, competitive series. Since 1994, when Houston defeated New York in 7 games, only one series has lasted the distance. And that one was the soporific Detroit vs. San Antonio matchup of 2005. In his 12 NBA Finals appearances and 10 victories, Phil Jackson has never been part of a Game 7. By and large, the better team is pretty well evident by Game 6 at the latest. However, this year’s NBA Finals features two evenly matched teams, and while I suspect Los Angeles may be slightly better from a talent perspective, either squad could take the winner-take-all contest tonight in California.

Boston enters this game lacking much margin of error. Without starting C Kendrick Perkins, the Celtics will need to stay out of early foul trouble. Tonight’s officiating crew consists of veterans Joe Crawford, Dan Crawford, and Scott Foster. For all those who fear biased officiating, I would like to allay those doubts. Even if you believe in conspiracies regarding the zebras, there is no reason for any chicanery to take place tonight. The league has everything they wanted – a Game 7 featuring the two most storied franchises in league history. David Stern would prefer nothing more than to have this high-profile game be decided by the players. That being said, the tone set by officiating will be crucial. Boston cannot afford to get hamstrung by touch fouls on their big men. Boston will likely activate F Brian Scalabrine in place of Perkins, and in essence would be a last resort. Shelden Williams hasn’t shown the ability to produce in the playoffs, leading you to believe that it’s Big Baby, ‘Sheed, or bust for the Celtics title hopes. We have to hope that Kevin Garnett’s legs have one more great defensive effort left, since Los Angeles is sure to integrate Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol into the game plan.

Los Angeles also has an advantage in that they trot out the best player on the court tonight. In crucial elimination games, I tend to favor the team with the premiere performer. In this case, Kobe Bryant has the capability to carry the Lakers to victory all by himself. On the other hand, Boston will probably need tremendous efforts from all, or at least three of their Big Four (Rondo, Garnett, Pierce, R.Allen). Role players tend to play better at home, but Boston can hope that someone like Davis, Robinson, or T. Allen catch fire and provide an unexpected spark. For Boston to feel like they have a good chance at winning, they’ll have to carry some cushion leading into the 4th Quarter. Because if the game is close, I would be very, very nervous as a Celtics fan with Kobe Bryant being in position to take a championship deciding shot. But to be fair, in albeit a smaller sample size Paul Pierce also has the ability to be a difference maker in clutch time, as evidence by his 40-point effort against Cleveland in the 2008 East Semifinal Game 7. And one does expect Ray Allen to eventually start hitting some open jumpers.

In conclusion, expect this game to contain all the drama that woeful Game 6 lacked. History has shown us that one bad game does not a series make. Boston followed up its Game 3 blowout loss at home to Cleveland in the 2nd Round with a resounding Game 4 victory. Doc Rivers can proclaim to the contrary, but it was only human nature for the Lakers to feel more urgency, facing elimination in Game 6. Now both teams share the same level of initiative of knowing that there truly is “no tomorrow”, at least for the 2009-10 NBA campaign. My head tells me that the Lakers hold a slight edge in the X’s and O’s of this Game 7. Having said that, it’s nearly impossible to predict which way the ball will bounce or which players will be the unsung hero when it matters the most. So… for everyone who has made this franchise what it is today… Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Bill Russell, JoJo White, Tommy Heinsohn, Bob Cousy, Hondo Havlicek, The Chief Robert Parish… and those who cannot be here today like Red, Reggie Lewis, Johnny Most, Dennis Johnson… and for devoted media members like Bob Ryan, Jackie MacMullan, Dan Shaughnessy… I am picking the BOSTON CELTICS to win Game 7 by a score of 101-93.