When the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics tip off Game Seven Thursday night at Staples Center, the stakes will be incredibly high.
A series victory is on the line.
An NBA title goes to the winner.
Legacies will be formed...or cemented.
The league's last two champions (and decades-old rivals) square off for a title that neither side can imagine losing.
The Lakers have the home-court advantage...but will that be enough to hold off Boston and avenge the stinging defeat from 2008?
For Kobe and company to ensure they bring home the trophy, here are the 10 things that they need to accomplish.
After sleepwalking through large chunks of the last two games in Boston, the Lakers played Game Six like a team that realized they were on the brink.
Diving on the floor? Check.
Hustling back to make a play? Check.
Communicating, rotating, and contesting shots on defense? Check, check, and check.
It's up to their head coach, Phil Jackson (and his ten championship rings) to instill that same sense of desperation, effort, and focus in Thursday's winner-take-all Game Seven.
The Lakers need to apply themselves to getting stops on the defensive end...and playing with a sense of urgency is key. After giving up 92 points in Game Five, LA was downright stingy Tuesday, holding the Celtics to only 67.
They'll need more of the same in the season's final game.
In all six games of this series, the team that scored the most first-quarter points has come out on top when the final buzzer sounded.
It's important for the Lakers to set the tone early, and that means using their size against Boston's depleted front line (Celtics center Kendrick Perkins has been ruled out of Thursday's game).
LA has an injured big man of their own in Andrew Bynum, and the Lakers need to try and get him involved early. There's no guarantee Bynum's knee will hold up for four quarters, and while Jackson can't expect a Game Two-type performance from Bynum (21 points in 39 minutes), a few easy putbacks and dunks in the opening period could help set the tone for the home team in Game Seven.
The only Lakers home loss in the 2010 postseason was Game Two of the Finals, a 103-94 Boston triumph. The Celtics used a mind-boggling eight three-pointers from Ray Allen to jump on top and hold off the defending champs.
Los Angeles can beat Boston even if Garnett, Pierce, and Allen all score in double figures (although it won't be easy). However, the Lakers don't have much of a prayer if they let any of the three players get "in the zone," as Allen was in Game Two.
The confidence that one superstar's dazzling performance gives to his whole team can't be overstated, and the Lakers can't afford to let any of the Celtics' trio of standouts take over the most important game of the season.
Both Boston and Los Angeles have lost stars for important stretches of the first six Finals games due to foul trouble. In the season's final game, the Lakers can't afford to have Pau Gasol pick up a cheap second foul, Derek Fisher body up Ray Allen too many times, or Kobe Bryant draw an unnecessary charge.
In LA's three wins, their starters have been whistled for just over 14 combined fouls (less than three per player).
In the Lakers' three losses, that number jumps to 19: basically an extra foul for every starter.
LA may have an edge over the Celts at home, but Jackson's club will still have to play with the poise and maturity that's required of champions if they hope to keep their big guns out of foul trouble and repeat as kings of the NBA.
When Ron Artest has been good in this series...he's been really good.
When Ron Artest has been bad in this series...well...let's just say the Lakers don't have a prayer.
Artest is the only member of the Los Angeles roster without a championship ring to his credit, and it's fitting that he's one of the most important X-factors in determining whether or not the 2010 Lakers come away with a Game Seven victory.
If Artest shuts down Paul Pierce and knocks down a couple wide-open threes (see: Game Six), the Lakers are well on their way to a parade.
If Artest gets beat on defense, loses his cool, or bricks a half-dozen jumpers instead of passing the ball to the best player on the planet (see: Game Five), his title drought will last at least one more year.
It's up to Jackson (and Bryant) to make sure Artest doesn't push the issue if his famously-streaky shot isn't on when the lights come on Thursday.
(Translation: 0-2 sounds a lot better than 1-15. Did you get that, Ron?)
The Lakers can't play any farther off Rajon Rondo at the defensive end than they are right now.
(I think Kobe Bryant was on the other side of Figueroa the last time Rondo attempted a jumper.)
However, jumper or no jumper, Rondo is still a dangerous player if he can A) get to the rim and B) make things happen in transition.
The Lakers can't afford to let Rondo do either in Game Seven.
(And food for thought: Should things not play out according to script for LA early, I'd consider bringing Luke Walton off the bench and use the hack-a-Rondo defense six straight trips to try and slow down the Celtics if they get in an early groove.
Just keep it in the back of your mind, Mr. Zen Master.)
Lamar Odom, the Lakers' streakiest player (with the possible exception of Ron Artest), should get plenty of minutes in relief of Bynum and his bum knee.
Which means the million-dollar question is...
...how much candy will Lamar eat pregame?
Oops, sorry. I mean...
...how effective will Lamar be against Rasheed Wallace, Glen Davis, and Brian Scalabrine?
(OK, so we probably won't see much of Scalabrine).
If Odom plays well, grabs rebounds, and trusts his jumper, the Lakers are difficult (read: nearly impossible) to beat.
But will he show up in Game Seven?
Expect Boston coach Doc Rivers to instruct his troops to play as far off Odom on the perimeter as the Lakers do with Rondo...can Odom make the visitors pay by hitting from outside?
Oh, and will he celebrate with Skittles or M&Ms if he does?
Boston's bench is keyed by the perimeter shooting of little man Nate Robinson and big man Rasheed Wallace. While Wallace may be pressed into a starting role (due to Perkins' injury), the Lakers need to key defensively on making sure neither player gets an open look from behind the three-point line.
Call it the "Ray Allen" defense if you want, but all five players on the floor for LA need to run at Robinson and Wallace, forcing them to dribble inside the arc to look for field goal attempts.
The Lakers can survive Wallace hitting two or three 18-footers. I don't think they can survive the momentum change if he knocks down a handful of triples.
Same thing for Mr. Kryptonite...er, Nate Robinson.
Boston wants to double-team Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol early and often.
(And just to be clear, with both players averaging insanely high scoring totals, I probably would too.)
Doc Rivers' strategy necessitates leaving other Lakers wide open, which means Derek Fisher, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown, and Sasha Vujacic ultimately hold the Los Angeles championship hopes in their collective shooting wrists.
The Lakers always shoot the ball better at home (as most teams do)—especially the "Bench Mob"—but it remains to be seen if the likes of Brown and Farmar can hit championship-winning shots with the pressure of a Game Seven breathing down their necks.
We'll find out Thursday.
This one sounds like a no-brainer.
"Of course, Kobe's going to get the ball at crunch time."
But that's not quite as easy as it sounds.
In fact, the Allen/Allen defensive tandem (that's Ray and Tony, if you're scoring at home) have made it downright difficult for Bryant to get his hands on the ball when the Lakers need him to work his magic in the last five minutes.
Still don't believe me? Just think back to Ron Artest dribbling wildly around the TD Garden floor in Boston before heaving a double-clutch fall-away 22-foot prayer as the shot clock expired.
Safe to say the Lakers would have rather had the ball in the Black Mamba's hands at that point...but credit the Celtics' defense for simply not allowing it.
So with both Boston and LA likely having too much pride and veteran experience to sustain a knockout blow from the opponent early in Game Seven, Thursday's battle (and the NBA championship) will come down to whether or not Kobe Bryant can get the ball against the denial of Allen and Allen.
Oh, and of course...
...he'll have to MAKE those shots too.
But you can't shoot if you don't have the ball.