What's at Stake for LeBron James, Tim Duncan and NBA Finals Stars in Game 7?
Erik Spoelstra was right.
Still basking in the "What the heck just happened?!?!" afterglow of his Miami Heat's miraculous 103-100 overtime win against the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, Spoelstra stepped to the podium for his postgame press conference and reminded everyone that the words "game" and "seven" comprise the best phrase in team sports.
Of course, that wouldn't be the case if playoff series were typically decided in, say, five or nine or 11 games. But, apparently, seven was the number chosen in the Book of Armaments, and it's a number to which all parties involved will gladly commit.
Silly tangents aside, Game 7 of the NBA Finals takes on such sacred meaning not only because of its gravity as a no-holds-barred, winner-take-all tilt or because of its rarity (Thursday's will be just the sixth Game 7 in the Finals since 1979), but also because of the legacies typically at stake therein. One game can mean the difference between a player being lionized as a hero or derided as a goat, remembered as a legend or forgotten as a failure.
Granted, that has as much to do with the hyperbolic terms with which the media tend to frame these things as anything else. But what fun is it to talk about sports and the great ones who play them without spraying into the whole miasma a whiff of embellishment? That's what Game 7s are all about!
Well, that and plenty more—for these guys, anyway.
So long as the Spurs still have a shot at the title, Danny Green will be alive in the race to become the most improbable—and, in reality, the most anonymous—Finals MVP ever.
To be sure, Green didn't exactly boost his case in Game 6. He missed six of his seven attempts and four out of five from three, including a last-second look in overtime that never advanced past the grasp of Chris Bosh.
But even while his once-hot hand cooled, Green found other ways to contribute. He snagged four rebounds, blocked two shots and continued his string of strong defensive performances opposite LeBron James, highlighted by a strip of James on the break late in the game.
Those plays lent life support to Green's MVP hopes, which had been the product of his leading San Antonio in scoring through the first five games of this series.
If nothing else, Danny Green's 26 treys will go down as the most in a single NBA Finals. Three more in Game 7, and he'll claim the record for most three-point makes in any playoff series for himself.
At present, that record belongs—along with former Orlando Magic sharpshooter Dennis Scott—to Ray Allen. The man widely regarded as the greatest shooter in NBA history nailed 28 shots from beyond the arc in 2001, when he nearly led the Milwaukee Bucks past the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
An earlier series in those playoffs featured a shot that, until last night, was arguably the single most memorable of Allen's career. Ironically enough, it came not on a three-pointer, but rather by way of a driving dunk.
And then, 12 years later, it happened.
Finally, the most prolific three-point shooter the sport has ever seen hit a singular shot befitting his reputation, an iconic moment to complete an already stunning collection of iconography.
That one shot was enough to validate the Heat's dogged pursuit of their one-time arch rival this past summer. Allen sent the game to overtime and saved Miami's bacon in the process.
If Allen comes through again in Game 7 and the Heat pull out the "W," then his semi-controversial South Beach swap will, in turn, be validated.
As if the crazy nothingburger between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Boston Celtics, in which Doc Rivers tried to sneak his way to L.A. and take Kevin Garnett with him, weren't already enough to confirm the wisdom of Allen's exodus.
As for the other 37-year-old future Hall of Famer in this series, the only basketball career move left for Tim Duncan is to retire from the NBA. Whether he retires with four rings or five won't change much.
He's already the greatest player of his generation (sorry, Kobe Bryant!) and the greatest power forward the sport has ever seen. He's earned a Rookie of the Year award, two regular-season MVPs, three Finals MVPs and 14 All-Star/All-Defensive/All-NBA selections—15 years apart, no less.
Duncan's efficacy in this, his fifth NBA Finals in 14 years, has been nothing short of stunning. His 30-point, 17-rebound romp (and 25-point first half therein) boosted his line for this series to 18.0 points, 12.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.5 blocks and 50-percent shooting from the field in 35.2 minutes per game.
This, from a guy who was supposed to be washed up two years ago!!! He's like the NBA's version of The Rock, if you substituted signature shots for catch phrases.
At this point, Duncan's as good a candidate as any on the Spurs' side to take home Finals MVP honors. If he does, he'd be just the second player in NBA history to earn such an award 14 years apart.
The other? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Again, Duncan's legacy doesn't hinge on this Game 7. But if he comes through in the way we all know he can, he'd boost himself just another spot or two higher up the NBA's ladder of all-time greats.
Of which he's already a prominent part.
As is the case with Duncan's, Manu Ginobili's standing in NBA history won't necessarily change if the Spurs lose. He's already a surefire Hall of Famer, arguably the greatest "sixth man" the league has ever seen and a member of the Association's All-Time Non-North American Team, alongside the likes of Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitzki and Yao Ming.
Game 6, though, was further proof that this might be it for Ginobili. He turned the ball over a career-worst eight times—twice in the final 44 seconds of overtime—and missed what ended up being a critical free throw toward the end of regulation.
This, just two days after turning in one of the finest performances of his career in Game 5: 24 points and 10 assists in 33 minutes in his first start of any sort in over a year.
In a way, the switch from feast to famine is emblematic of Manu's entire career. He'll go down as one of the greatest clutch players of all time, albeit one who's been responsible for more than his fair share of befuddling fouls and boneheaded plays.
Not that we'll remember him by this series alone—in which, for the most part, Manu's played miserably—or even for the times when Manu didn't come through. Ginobili's legacy is safe.
Another big moment or two couldn't hurt, though.
Ginobili can certainly empathize with the "Jekyll and Hyde" career phase into which Dwyane Wade appears to have faded.
These entire playoffs have been something of a house of horrors for Wade. The 2013 Finals aren't any exception to that. He's taken terrible shots more often than he'd probably like to admit. He's stunk it up in the post; per Grantland's Zach Lowe, Wade's shot just 6-of-27 on the block in this series, with exactly zero fouls drawn, while coughing up the ball 16 percent of the time.
His inability to hit perimeter shots with any regularity has allowed the Spurs to play off him and clog the middle of the floor. According to NBA.com (via Zach Lowe), the Heat have scored nearly 31 points more per 100 possessions when LeBron's had the floor to himself than they do when he's shared it with Wade.
At times, he's hung back after missed shots to bark at officials, thereby leaving his teammates high and dry on defense. Other times, Wade, for whatever reason (Fatigue? Injury? A lack of focus? A deficit of concern?), has been slow to rotate and left the Spurs' army of shooters with wide-open looks.
With all of this being said, Wade remains an invaluable part of Miami's championship operation, as he showed at times in Game 6. He did a much better job of rotating on defense and hustling all over the floor to provide help for his teammates, particularly in the second half. It was his hand that tipped the ball out of Kawhi Leonard's massive mitts before it wound up back in LeBron's for a monumental three-pointer with 20 seconds left.
Simply put, Wade makes plays, even when his body isn't at its best.
And then, from time to time, he'll look like a bona fide superstar, as he did in Games 4 and 5, between which he piled up 57 points.
At the age of 31, Wade no longer seems to possess the physical fortitude to withstand the wear and tear of a full season and emerge unscathed in the playoffs. But the dude's still a playmaker through and through, with a third title—and another throwback performance to earn it—further confirming this Hall of Famer's transformation into one of the most overqualified sidekicks in pro sports.
Meanwhile, Chris Bosh will continue to toil in anonymity, as the punchline to every other Heat-related joke.
Or not. The guy's logged four double-doubles in these Finals, and though his shooting hasn't always been sharp, he, like LeBron and Wade, has found ways to help his team win.
Such was the case in Game 6. After getting torched by Tim Duncan in the first half, Bosh bounced back with a string of game-changing plays, from the offensive rebound and quick pass that set up Ray Allen's game-tying three to the two massive blocks in overtime: the Dream-to-Starks-esque stop of Tony Parker's 17-footer and the complete denial of Danny Green's desperate attempt at the buzzer.
Bosh won't likely be anyone's choice for Finals MVP, nor even second or third place, and rightfully so. This series has seen heroes come out of the woodwork at every turn.
But the most Jurassic member of the Heat's Big Three has done plenty to leave his stamp on this series and justify his existence on this squad. If nothing else, Bosh has only further complicated Pat Riley's thinking for the coming summer, during which the Heat's legendary executive will likely be left to determine how to refresh his roster going forward.
The Spurs, on the other hand, have already mapped out their line of succession for the next decade or so with the emergence of Kawhi Leonard.
The second-year stud out of San Diego State logged his best performance of the playoffs in Game 6. He scored 22 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to register his third double-double of the series, along with three steals and all-around stellar defense while bouncing between LeBron and Wade.
Detractors will turn on Leonard for his missed free throw in crunch time and/or for the rebound that Wade popped out of his hands that led to LeBron's big three. Those plays matter immensely in the big picture.
But such are the growing pains of a 21-year-old kid, even one who's been as unflinchingly consistent as Leonard has for the Spurs. Every "Bildungsroman" has its peaks and valleys.
Very few, though, feature moments of pronouncement that are quite as jaw-dropping as the dunk above.
Losing out on a title in year two would do little to deter Leonard's career trajectory. But getting his paws on the Larry O'Brien Trophy would afford Leonard the sort of championship head start that was once enjoyed by Duncan, who won his first title in his second season.
You know who else capped off his second NBA campaign with a banner? Yep. Tony Parker, in 2003.
(Manu Ginobili was a rookie on that team, so we don't count him in this discussion.)
A fourth title would deepen the grooves in his etching among the sport's most decorated point guards, just below Magic Johnson (five) and Bob Cousy (six).
And, realistically, the Spurs will need a Finals MVP-caliber performance out of Parker to snag that next ring. He's the best player in San Antonio's camp, and must be the best player on the floor for either team for the Spurs to be the first team in 35 years to steal the title on the road in a seventh game.
Anything less won't necessarily tarnish Tony's reputation. Again, because he plays for (and has won three titles with) Pop's Spurs, he's practically immune to the sort of scathing criticism to which his superstar counterparts in Miami will be subjected if the tide turns in San Antonio's favor.
Who could blame Tony anyway? He did everything he could to set up a Spurs victory down the stretch in Game 5—even with his hamstring giving him guff—short of defying Gregg Popovich's orders.
In truth, Game 7, for Tony Parker, boils down to an opportunity to further assert his own primacy as San Antonio's central star.
And to earn his first piece of jewelry since splitting with Eva Longoria.
Here's the better question: What isn't at stake for LeBron in Game 7?
A quick list of what will probably happen if the Heat win:
- LeBron will claim his second NBA Finals MVP.
- He'll be exalted as a gritty, clutch player who helped his team win, even if he didn't "have it" every night.
- He'll have vanquished the demons of Texas in general (the Dallas Mavericks in 2011) and San Antonio in particular (the Spurs in 2007).
- He'll be lauded as a relentless warrior/modern marvel after playing in three straight Finals and leading Team USA to another gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
- He'll further cement his standing as the greatest player of his generation.
A quick list of what will probably happen if the Heat lose:
- LeBron will be derided as a "choker" and a Finals failure, with a 1-3 record in the NBA's championship round.
- We'll all be subjected to another summer (if not another year) of questions about whether LeBron is actually great or if he's been a disappointment.
- We'll blame him for the Heat "losing" this title, rather than praise the Spurs for winning it.
- We'll wonder whether LeBron "ran out of gas" and/or if he really has the chops to challenge for a spot on the NBA's Mount Rushmore.
- We'll all hate ourselves for the four points above.
In reality, LeBron won't be any better or worse after Game 7, regardless of the outcome. All that will change is how we perceive his career to that point in time.
Which, I suppose, is all we can use to shape a player's legacy, isn't it?