Ten questions as we head into a Game 7 that will go a long way in the defining the legacy of several Hall of Famers. Should be exciting, I know Andy Garica's moustache hasn't been able to sleep the last couple of nights in anticipation of this deciding game.
1. Are we finally going to get the epic game this series has been missing?
Forget epic -- I'd sign for very good and run at this point. We've seen both teams at its peak (Celtics in Game 2 and Game 5, Lakers in Game 6) but haven't really come close to seeing both do so in the same game. Let's be fair, if this was the Magic and Spurs in the finals and the quality of play was exactly the same as we've seen over the last six games there would be very little juice nationally (and zippo in Boston) for a Game 7. This is a laundry series, plain and simple. The Lakers and Celtics are the greatest rivalry in professional sports history. Plus there is probably the biggest star in the sport and a handful of Hall of Famers kicking around. So they get plenty of leeway. But if Game 7 is another 90-82 special where the losing team shoots around 40 percent and never really makes a run? Then this series has to be labeled a huge disappointment. Now I get that you don't care about that as long the Celtics win, but from an NBA perspective it warrants mentioning.
But will we get a classic? You know, both teams around 50% from the floor, terrific flow, a ton of lead changes, the big names doing big things, the refs staying out of the way, a one or two possession game throughout the fourth quarter kind of game? I'd love to say yes, but there's just no proof. Even in 2008 there wasn't a game that I'd put in the classic category. Game 4 had an all-time comeback and was an emotional a win as the Celtics have ever had, but would you say that both teams played great? So I have to go with "no" on this one and let's hope I'm wrong.
(I will say that Perkins out and Bynum playing limited minutes might help the classic cause. Why? Well, Lamar Odom and Rasheed/Big Baby playing big minutes could lead to a little more of an up-and-down the court pace, possible a more fluid game, some more scoring. Or Rasheed and Big Baby could go scoreless -- see Game 6 -- and Odom could pull one of his patented disappearing acts. How was that for not taking a stand?)
2. Does the loss of Perkins really matter?
Sure it does. But he's not good enough that you could get away with putting the blame of a Game 7 loss on his absence. That won't fly. I'm declaring that argument shall never be used by a caller or host on 'EEI should the Celtics lose.
3. What jumps out when you look at the stat sheet from Game 6?
Besides Rasheed missing six 3-pointers in 17 minutes? I'm still convinced that was a "Thinking of you during the hard times" tribute to Antoine Walker, who was probably so touched that he bought 'Sheed three cars and a condo in Hilton Head.
But for me it's Paul Pierce not taking a single free-throw attempt. This coming after only taking a pair of FT attempts in Game 5. First time since January of 2009 that he has had a combined two or fewer attempts from the stripe in back-to-back games. This is what happens, of course, when you punch a referee in the face. No calls. Pierce should have known better.
The Celtics need Pierce to get to the line somewhere close to the double-digit range in Game 7. He is best when he's aggressive, and when he's in a drive-first mode it really does open up his pullback jumper. With a limited (at best) Bynum in the middle there is no real shot-blocking threat and he should be able to get to the basket. I wouldn't be surprised to see Pierce have his best game of the series. I just wish I could call David Spade to talk about this. You can just tell he's a hoops junkie, not some guy being forced by a studio to hump a second-rate comedy.
4. Who is the most important Laker (non-Kobe division)?
Wish this was a more creative answer, but it really is Pau Gasol. Do you realize that he has four double-doubles in this series, one more than all the players from both teams combined? The Lakers are 3-1 in the series when he puts up a double-double, and 9-2 in the playoffs. Is it still possible that if he puts up a 26-18 in a Game 7 and Kobe is just OK that he steals the MVP?
5. Who is the most important Celtic (non-Core Four division)?
For me it's still Glen Davis. Don't know if he'll start Game 7 or not, but if he's the Big Baby of the first four games of this series he will be on the court when it really matters -- at the end. The one bench player for the Celtics that can change the game. 'Sheed needs the game to come to him, but Davis has the ability to enter a game and step on its neck. He and Wallace could each put up a 12-8 but it would feel different, right? An end of the Shrek and Donkey hangover (Robinson and Davis are a combined 4-of-16 over the last two games) could go a long way in Game 7.
6. Will ABC continue to hate the Celtics?
Probably not true, but it does feel like there is a serious anti-Celtics bias going on over at the network that gave us Roone Arledge, Harry Reasoner and "Who's the Boss?" MIke Breen seems to be openly rooting for the Lakers. Maybe he just wanted to see a Game 7. I don't know, maybe I'd be more comfortable with the whole thing if page eight of the 2009-10 Lakers Media Guide wasn't devoted to a man who works as a pregame and halftime analyst for ABC during the finals. It's lunacy. And yes, I know Magic is Magic and all the stuff he's been through, but it's still a joke that ABC is trying to pass him off as something close to objective. The guy is VP of the Lakers, and part owner. Come on. And to be fair it's not like Magic brings anything to the able as an analyst. Quick, name me one thing Magic has ever said on ABC or TNT. I think we could live with putting him on the bench for any series involving the Lakers. Think anyone is going to turn off Game 7 because ABC wised up and decided to put a one-night halt on Magic stumbling through cliches and cracking up at Jon Barry jokes?
7. From a Celtics perspective, what would constitute a good night's work against Kobe?
Hey, the idea that guarding Rondo could wear Kobe down as the series went on hasn't really quite come to fruition, huh?
I have to think that if you told Doc Rivers a hour before tipoff that Kobe would score 30 points that there's a good chance he'd be OK with it. Again, it's not a best-case scenario, but you have to be realistic. The guy is going to get his points. And the threat of a 48-point explosion always lingers. And there's no secret plan being hatched, no Kobe rules. You are going to see the Allen's on Kobe and that's about it. All you can do is try to make each possession uncomfortable. I'm more than a little surprised that Perkins or Big Baby or Rasheed haven't really been overly physical when Kobe has gone to the basket. Not cheap shots, but just reminders. Hasn't really happened at all in this series.
And if the Lakers have the ball with 10 seconds left in a one-possession game I want Tony Allen guarding Kobe. No question about it. Not a knock on Ray, but you can tell Kobe feels far less comfortable when Tony is defending him.
8. Is there an X-factor for the Celtics in Game 7?
Yup. Keeping Shelden Williams off the floor. He's like Chuck Knoblauch but with no arms.
(Cheap shot, and it's not really true. Can't judge someone by one pass and one missed dunk. And 20 or 30 dropped passes and botched rebounds. Gotta feel bad for Shelden, but this isn't working. I'm sure they can get by for one game with Wallace-Big Baby-Garnett taking the minutes in the middle. I wonder if Scalabriene -- who will be activated with Perkins out -- actually moves ahead of Shelden on the depth chart. We're essentially talking about who sits where on the bench for 48 minutes on Thursday, but you never know.)
9. Is this the last time we'll see Doc Rivers and Ray Allen with the Celtics?
Everybody seems to know that Doc is gone after this season. It's the worst-kept secret in Celtics World, just ahead of "Wait a minute, Rondo and Pierce aren't best friends"? Everyone knows Doc is gone, but no one actually knows. It's just smart (and some not-so-smart) people putting pieces together is all. Lots of circumstantial evidence leading to ... who knows what? The truth is that maybe Doc Rivers, his family and a few others know what his plans for the future are after Game 7 but that's about it. Sure, it makes sense for him to walk after this season, win or lose. His stock will never be higher, and it'll only climb if he stays away for a couple of years. He'll have his pick of jobs whenever he decides to return, and he'll be one of the two or three highest-paid coaches in the league. But you know what? It makes sense to stay, too. Take a look around the Eastern Conference. Are you telling me that the Celtics couldn't do this again next year? Who is going to be better? The Magic, with an older Vince and some serious chemistry issues? The Cavaliers are either going to win 16 or 60 games, but even if they keep LeBron they are still stuck with Shaq and Jamison. I'm not saying that the Celtics will be the clear-cut favorite in 2010-11, but they are still in a nice spot at the table. And jobs like that are tough to leave. So my guess is that he comes back, at least for one more run. He could sign a two-year deal and take off after a year, couldn't he? I have to think both sides would show some level of felxibilty.
As for Ray, I think it's mostly up to Ray. If he's happy making, say, $16 million over two years then he'll stick around. If he thinks he deserves a payday then he's gone. The Celtics, though, aren't going to be rebuilding over the next two years. They still have Garnett and Wallace on the books through 2011-12. So if Ray Allen walks it's not a question of a team in transition. And I think he stays as well. Look, is there anyone available out there that would fit this team better for a couple of years at a decent price? And conversly is there a better fit for Allen at this point of his career? I'm putting this on the "makes too much sense not to happen" shelf.
10. Wouldn't you have saved us from having to read all this if you had just written that Rondo needs to play like the Rondo that carried this team to the finals?
Remember the Gasol double-double stat? Well, when Rondo reaches double-digits in points and assists the Celtics are 7-1 in the playoffs. He's only done that once this series (the Game 2 triple-double) and his points and assist averages vs. the Lakers are each 2010 postseason lows for Rondo. For a great deal of this series he's been just another point guard, the kind that a team doesn't really miss when Nate Robinson is on the floor. Rondo has been shockingly passive at times and that cannot happen in Game 7. For Rondo to cement his stardom -- and the Celtics to win No. 18 -- he needs to be the best Celtics player on the court. A line of 11-5-5 won't cut it. This is what I consider Must Win Game No. 5 for the Celtics in the 2010 playoffs. In the first four (Game 4 vs. Cleveland, Game 6 vs. Orlando and Games 2 and 5 in this series) Rondo averaged 20 points, 9.2 rebounds and 8.5 assists. Something in that neighborhood could be the difference.