For the 17th time in NBA history, our champion will be determined in the seventh and final game of the NBA Finals.
You needn’t look far to determine the value of homecourt advantage in a game of this magnitude. The team with the better record is 13-3 in Game Sevens, though Boston has two of those three wins (’69, ’74). A road team hasn’t won a Game Seven since 1978, when the Washington Bullets beat the Seattle SuperSonics.
This has been a very enigmatic and unique series. While the level of competition has been extraordinarily high, the quality of play has been anything but. We’ve yet to have an instant classic-type game where both teams play at a really high level all the way to a dramatic and enthralling finish.
And it’s been a classic example of the recency effect—it seems like the winner of the previous game is undoubtedly the favorite for the next contest, and you openly wonder how the loser has any chance of bouncing back.
After Game One, it looked like Los Angeles was going to run away with the series.
In Game Two, Boston had all the momentum and was returning home with a chance (albeit a small one) to close out the Lakers.
After Game Three, the Lakers stole homecourt back and were in complete control.
Through Games Four and Five, the Celtics dominated the paint, took Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum out of the equation, and looked like they were a team of destiny.
And now, after the Lakers’ dominating Game Six performance coupled with the injury to Kendrick Perkins, many doubt if the Celtics even have a chance to keep it close tonight.
But in Game Sevens, anything can happen. Some of it will come down to execution, but the winner of this game will have more heart, display more toughness, and give more effort for 48 minutes. It’s anyone’s game; that said, here are seven things to look out for in the last game of the 2009-10 NBA season.
1. Rajon Rondo
Despite his All-Star type performance throughout the playoffs and reinventing the argument of who is the best point guard in the league, Rajon Rondo has been somewhat disrespected by the Lakers in the last couple of games.
They are playing well off of him and daring him to shoot. Their defensive rotations are designed to keep Paul Pierce off his spots, close out on Ray Allen at the three-point line, and allow Rondo to catch the ball anywhere in the 15-20 foot range.
And he’s clanking every jumper he throws up. He shot 5-for-15 in both Games Four and Six, his rebounds and assists are down, and his impact has been up-and-down—either he’s in total control on the court or he’s a complete non-factor. There’s really no in-between.
Tonight, he has to dictate pace and tempo for the full 48 minutes. The key for him will the final six minutes of the game. Typically in close contests, his role in the offense is greatly reduced as the Celts isolate Paul Pierce.
He can’t allow that to happen; he has to show the same aggressiveness and attacking play that he does for the first three quarters.
A big game from Rondo and the Celtics will have a chance in the fourth.
With no Perkins, the Celtics will have to heavily rely on Rasheed Wallace and Glen Davis to not only provide toughness in the middle, but to clean up the boards as well.
You don’t know which Kevin Garnett will be there tonight: an active one who gets off his feet and grabs any rebound near him, or the slow, less agile guy that goes up for a rebound with one hand.
In L.A.’s three wins, the Lakers are plus-32 on the boards. In Boston’s three wins, the Celtics are plus-13.
The team that’s won the rebounding battle has won every game in this series. Expect that trend to continue tonight.
3. Who Dominates the Paint?
This ties in with the previous point. In Games Four and Five, the Celtics got anything they wanted near the rim, and the Lakers looked helpless trying to defend them.
In three Boston wins, they are plus-44 in points in the paint. Garnett has been active and a force in the paint, Davis gives them a series lift in terms of energy and hustle off the bench, and Wallace is still an effective low-post defender. He’s probably done the best of any big defending Gasol, pushing him off his spots in the low-post and making him catch the ball and face up in areas where Gasol is not comfortable attacking.
On the other hand, the Lakers are plus-14 points in the paint in their victories. It’s no coincidence that Pau Gasol’s three best games in this series were Games One, Three, and Six—all L.A. wins.
He's just more active in everything he does. He runs the floor a little harder. He catches the ball in the post at about six feet away from the hoop instead of eight or nine feet. He finds the open man (5.7 assists in wins, 2.0 assists in losses). He controls the game and takes just enough pressure off Kobe Bryant.
This is where missing Perkins will be big for Boston. He’s another big body that can "punk" Gasol, if you will. He also allows Rasheed to be a bit more aggressive and a little more careless with his fouls.
That’s not the case tonight. Rasheed cannot be in foul trouble. He has to play 25 to 30 minutes. If he doesn’t, and Glen Davis and Shelden Williams have to split time on Gasol or Bynum, advantage to the Lakers. Big advantage to the Lakers.
4. L.A.’s Defense
Jason Whitlock tweeted during Game Six that no one is going to talk about L.A.’s defense because it’s not a sexy topic. They’ll talk about how they got great movement on offense, the role players took some of the heat off Kobe, and they bounced back to shoot 50 percent from the field (instead of the 33 percent they put up in the first 24 minutes of Game Five).
But when the Lakers play defense like they did in the first of Game Six, they’re nearly unstoppable.
In L.A.’s three wins, Boston is shooting an atrocious 39.7 percent (89-of-224) from the field and 19.6 percent (10-of-51) from the three-point line. In their three losses, the Celtics shot 47.5 percent (113-of-238) from the field and 42.5 percent (17-of-40) from the three-point line.
So it’s not really difficult to figure out: If the Celtics shoot well and connect from the perimeter, they’ll probably win.
If L.A. closes out on shooters and protects the rim, Boston will turn into a mid-range jump shooting team—and the Lakers will almost assuredly come out on top.
5. Bench Play
Here’s another trend that’s not to hard to follow: the winner of each game has had the better bench.
The Lakers bench excels at home. I’m pretty sure they don’t even make the road trips. Guys like Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic have an entirely new energy to their game. They attack the rim, they get out in transition, and they get under the skin of their opponents.
Lamar Odom does the same. He attacks the boards, facilitates the offense at the top of the key, and becomes a factor on defense. When he plays well, it takes the Lakers to another level.
But Boston has game-changers on their bench. In Boston’s wins, Nate Robinson has played a huge role. He comes in the game just looking to provide a spark, to do something to get his team fired up, whether it’s nailing some threes, hitting a few jump shots, or diving for loose balls.
Ditto goes for Glen Davis, except he does his work in the paint. The defining play of the series so far is his offensive rebound where he goes up and outmuscles Gasol for an offensive rebound and gets an and-one putback. That type of hustle epitomizes Boston’s overall effort and how they've outworked their opponents throughout the playoffs.
But now, guys like Robinson and Davis will be counted on more than ever. Their contributions aren’t just added bonuses; they're necessities for a Boston victory.
Can they deliver?
6. The Coaching Battle
It could be the last time we see either of these two coaches with their respective teams. It could be the last time we see them coaching altogether (though not very likely).
It hasn’t been Phil Jackson’s best series. It was well documented in Game Four when he left Kobe and Gasol in to start the fourth, and the Celtic bench still outplayed them, leaving his two stars gassed down the stretch. He's been adamant about playing guys who have struggled to contribute at times.
But still, Phil is the best motivator in NBA history. It’s futile to try and put his impact into words, but I’ll give it a shot. He always keeps the big picture in mind, and no doubt his players do the same.
A popular adage is that a team is a reflection of its coach. When the Lakers came out in Game Six with their backs against the wall, they were calm, cool, handled the pressure admirably, and executed their gameplan to perfection—exactly what you would expect from a Phil Jackson team.
And an intriguing tidbit: this will be Phil’s 73rd game in the Finals and his first Game Seven.
It’ll be interesting to see what kind of wrinkles Doc Rivers has in store for tonight. He’ll have a different starting lineup for the first time this entire postseason. The Celtics never lost a series with the Rondo-Allen-Pierce-Garnett-Perkins starting five; now, it’s likely that Rasheed will step into Perk’s spot.
Will Doc throw a curveball tonight? Will he come out with a lineup that L.A. hasn’t seen and maybe isn’t prepared for?
It’s tough losing your starting center before the biggest game of the season. But at the same time, it’s an opportunity because the other team doesn’t know what the hell your plans are either.
7. Who Imposes Their Will More: Kobe Bryant or Paul Pierce?
Much of this breakdown has been about X's and O's. But the most important factor of tonight won’t come from any statistic; it will come from each side’s closer and big game player.
It'll come down to who wants it more. Who hits the floor for that loose ball instead of bending over to pick it up?
Who goes diving out of bounds for a chance to save a possession?
Who keeps the offensive rebound alive for two more points?
That'll be the team that comes out on top.
This is a game Paul Pierce lives for. He’s in his hometown.
He has to chance to engrave his place in Celtics lore with a second Finals victory over the Lakers.
Boston fans have always had a special place in their hearts for Pierce; he’s the ultimate blue-collar player that steps up in big games.
On the other hand, Kobe Bryant has a unique opportunity to cement his legacy in NBA history. He can become a hands-down top-10—maybe even top-five—player with a win tonight.
Both players understand what’s on the line besides the title. They get the big picture. It’s more than just this one title; it’s about tradition, legacy, and a place in history.
I’ve never really been more confident in a statement than I am this: one of these guys will be the difference maker tonight. And he’ll be the reason his team wins.