Oh, the stakes. I can't remember the last time a game had more storylines in play and such potential for league-wide implications. If you are an NBA fan, someone who takes all of the typical nonsense from the naysayers—"teams don't play any defense," "the refs never call traveling," "LeBron sucks," "everybody flops"—this is the game that reminds you why you care (even if everyone does flop).
The NBA is a league that features five to six guys playing the majority of the game, allows its stars to single-handedly win games, and has moments that define whether or not someone is "clutch" that are unique to basketball. These factors put NBA players (especially the superstars) in positions to be dissected that are simply unmatched by any other sport.
Yeah, Tom Brady can lead a two-minute drive to win the game, but that takes 11 guys. Anyone who says otherwise doesn't respect the game of football. Yes, Halladay or Cliff Lee can completely dominate a game, but he needs the rest of his teammates to get hits (I know Phillies fans won't argue with that). Sure, Crosby can put up a hat-trick, but Fleury could have one of "his games."
In the NBA, you can throw the ball to a guy and watch him go to work. You can put Durant or LeBron on any team and they will make the playoffs. Whether or not that makes you like the league more or less is a matter of personal preference. The fact is, NBA stars are extremely accountable in big moments. Fortunately for us, the exposure of these players (they don't wear any helmets, court is small compared to NFL and MLB fields, etc.) creates the kind of stories we love to read and hear about.
Exiting lecture-mode (/end rant), this brings us to why tonight's game is so huge. Seeing the stories unfold during a playoff Game 7 is sometimes just as exciting as watching the game of basketball being played by the best players in the world in itself (just my opinion, and I play and love basketball). Luckily, the stakes tonight are not short in supply or magnitude. Even the housewife who only knows the NBA exists because of Lamar Odom and the Kardashians should be glued to the TV tonight. Here are the massive stakes tonight as the Heat take their talents back to South Beach.
1. Oklahoma City Waiting in the Wings
One of the most underrated stories heading into Game 7 is the fact that the Thunder have already made it to the finals. Have people realized that, if the Heat win, we are guaranteed either a Durant or James championship!?!? The implications of either outcome would be immense for the league and media.
If the Heat win, well, you already know the stories there. LeBron finally gets a ring. Chris Bosh is redeemed, clearly being a difference maker in the Celtics series. Emo Bosh now has tears of joy. Erik Spoelstra's reserved coaching style is validated (I guess), and the calls for Pat Riley cease. LeBron now has no more reason to be nervous in the clutch, and shoots 80 percent in the fourth quarter for the rest of his career. The NBA becomes less interesting to casual fans, as the dynamic of the Heat as the "villains with no championships" disappears. Nobody wins (Just kidding...kind of).
If Durant wins a title in only his fifth season, people will start making bold predictions. Trust me. The Durant-LeBron comparisons would reach a new level. More fans and experts would start saying that Durant is the better player, and you couldn't even shoot down the argument when he has three scoring titles and a championship. They would also begin asking if he can beat Jordan's six with so much of his career remaining. Also, the angle of the Durant and Westbrook conflict could immediately be put to rest. Scottie Brooks is validated as a coach (I guess). James Harden and Serge Ibaka would be key players on a title run with free agency looming. Derek Fisher is a bald deity.
As you can see, a Miami Heat-Oklahoma City Finals would be monstrous for the NBA and media.
2. A League of Superstars
If the Miami Heat defeat the Boston Celtics in Game 7, it's time to start seriously considering whether a team without an elite superstar near, in, or barely exiting his prime can win an NBA championship.
We gushed about the Spurs as a true team with a great coach for a month, and they were beaten in six games by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Yes, Duncan was once a superstar, but he does not meet the "close to his prime" qualifier. The Indiana Pacers once led the Miami Heat two games to one in a playoff series, yet fans were surer of a Heat victory than an eventual Miley Cyrus-Liam Hemsworth breakup. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade proceeded to unleash hell on the Pacers.
The Denver Nuggets were billed as a team with depth, a stable of above average players and George Karl, and fell to the Black Mamba. The Grizzlies were once again the dark horse candidate for the finals, with a fantastic team on paper, and were put down by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
Every year, many fans hope that a team with eight solid players who all know their roles can take down the big names of the NBA. I hate to break it to everyone, but only one team has won a title in the past 22 years without an indisputable star on their team: the '03-'04 Pistons, and even they had big names like Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and Darko Milicic on their roster.
Yes, these same Celtics won in '08, but they were a lot younger then. A Celtics victory, even though they still have some serious star power on their roster, could restore some faith in the team mentality. I don't think the same could be said for a Durant-LeBron, Westbrook-Wade, Bosh-Harden/Ibaka series.
3. A New Era in the NBA
In a league that is definitely making the change to a new wave of superstars, this might be the season that puts the stamp on the transition. A Heat-Thunder finals would officially mark the end of the Kobe, Duncan, Garnett, Pierce, Nowitzki, Nash, Kidd, Allen, etc. era, moving us into the age of LeBron, Wade, Durant, Westbrook, Rose. Some would argue that we've already been here for a few seasons, but the last few championships say otherwise.
4. The Big Four of Boston
Taking a look at just this season in a lens (ignoring past years), the Celtics are like the high school team who just realized they have a stud freshman on the roster.
The kid is clearly going to a Division I school, and might be starting to become all of the fans' favorite player. However, the team has a few seniors that have already been around the block a few times and had some great careers for themselves. The seniors might not be so willing to let this new guy take the reigns and run with the team. Luckily, the freshman realizes the situation, and lets the team operate under the facade that the seniors are the leaders of the team and the go-to guys. That is, until any big games.
All year, he absolutely dominates their rival high schools in games of local media coverage, and his teammates take notice. He also knows that this might be his only chance to win a championship during a season where he was the best player because all of the seniors are graduating and there aren't any quality juniors, sophomores, or up-and-comers to help him in future years.
By the end of the season, the seniors (who want to win just as bad as, if not more than, the freshman) are ready to give him the keys for the playoffs and see what the kid can do. And, Rajon Rondo has certainly not disappointed.
Rondo has averaged 17.1 ppg in the playoffs and 20.7 in the Eastern Conference Finals compared to his 11.9 season average. All year, despite trade rumors and a lack of faith by Bill Simmons:
"Any smart team (like the Lakers last night) plays six feet off Rondo in tight games, daring him to shoot, paralyzing Boston's offense and leading to the dreaded "Clogged Toilet" play (Pierce ending up with the ball 25 feet from the hoop with seven seconds left trying to create something). It's almost like playing with a handicap. Screw that, it IS like playing with a handicap. It's also curious that the Celtics came alive defensively when Rondo missed eight games, mostly thanks to Avery Bradley, who flashed Tony Allen/Bruce Bowen-type potential as a perimeter defender (and that's not hyperbole). For the first time, I find myself hoping they deal Rondo"
Rondo absolutely dominated in nationally televised games, and has now led (yes, led) the Celtics to a Game 7 against the Miami Heat, a team that easily beat them in five games after Rondo injured his elbow last season. The future outlook of the Celtics, with Rajon Rondo likely at the helm, is one of the biggest unknowns in the NBA. The thing about a group like the Celtics is that you would never know you were watching the team in its final, previously NBA champions state until after the season. Tonight could be it, so enjoy.
5. The Big Three of Miami
It's been an interesting two-year tenure for the Super Friends. By most other clubs' expectations (in the NBA or any other sport), two Eastern Conference Finals and at least one NBA Finals appearance in two seasons spell success. Unfortunately for Miami, blowing up all of the traditional ways in sports (besides the MLB) of creating a good organization—drafting carefully, making smart trades and signings, developing players, sticking with your guys and building team chemistry, selecting the right head coach, etc.—can only be validated by winning multiple championships. Yes, I said multiple.
Pat Riley might decide that tonight will tell him whether or not this is the combination of players and coaches that will do it. Many are of the opinion that the Heat will make significant moves if they lose again this year. The Heat would easily win multiple titles by shopping Wade for a big man, but they obviously never would for a variety of reasons.
The alternate move is for Riley to coach, which I also think would bring the Heat a title. I don't think trading Bosh is the answer; the bigger problem is the James-Wade dynamic. It's a shame (as an NBA fan) that we have to watch two of the greatest players ever share the ball in big games, but that's for another day. Like the Celtics, this could be the last time we see this iteration of the Heat in uniform.
6. LeBron James
Were you expecting anything else to end the column? Do I even need to say anything?
LeBron James is the best player in the NBA and he needs a ring. If he folds or is outplayed by Dwyane Wade in Game 7 and they lose, Game 6 means nothing. Win, and fight another day in the finals against the Durantula. Plus, this is his last chance to win a championship when a healthy Jeremy Lin will capture the next 10-12 titles. Like usual, LeBron's playoff reputation is absolutely on the line tonight.
As of fan of the NBA, I want to see the Heat lose to keep the league interesting. Yet, I also want to see LeBron become the transcendent player of our generation that we are all expecting. So, I guess this is both a win-win and a lose-lose situation if that's even possible (calm down, I know it's not).
In any case, I'm excited to see what happens.
Let me know your feelings about the stakes of tonight's game in the comments section. I'll happily respond to any differences in opinion.
Nick Pournaras will be a Senior at Penn State University this Fall.