LOS ANGELES — At this point it is almost impossible to write about this series without lapsing into overwrought hyperbole filled with nostalgic asides.
All around us are the living ghosts of Bill Russell and Jerry West. Kareem and Cowens. Bird and Magic. KG and Kobe. It’s the Celtics and Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA finals, and there is no possible way to hype this any more than it has already been hyped.
But here’s the thing: None of that will matter at 9 p.m. Thursday night. What we have here are two teams that have beaten and battered each other through six grueling games where momentum lasts only as long as the post-game interviews.
Someone’s legacy will be enhanced when this is all decided, but that’s for Friday and beyond. All we have now is the game and while the Lakers are the favorites based on the location, the simple fact is no one knows how this is going to play out.
We have very few trends to grasp on to for support except that the team that has won the rebounding battle has won the game. Beyond that, there have been adjustments and tweaks, but they too seem to last only as long as the respective coaching braintrusts can come up with a counter move.
“It’s the ultimate players game,” Doc Rivers said. “It’s the game that all the things you’ve worked on all year, you have to do it and execute it and trust and play. You know, there’s going to come a time maybe where a timeout is important and an adjustment may be important.
“Chuck Daly always said it’s the make-miss game. The league is a make-miss league. But especially Game 7. It comes down to makes and misses. And on the misses, on their misses, make sure they don’t get another opportunity to have a make, and that’s what they come down to.”
For the Celtics, Kendrick Perkins will not play after injuring his knee in Game 6. For the Lakers, Andrew Bynum may be only able to give his team 10-20 minutes, if that. The superstars will be vital. The benches will be important and the coaching decisions will be scrutinized.
We have seen just about everything we can see in this series and the possibility exists that we may see something else entirely in Game 7. With that in mind, here are five things to watch as the Celtics and Lakers meet their fate in Game 7
ENERGY, EFFORT AND EXECUTION
For starters, the Celtics know that they have to play better in the first quarter. They also know that they can’t afford to let the game come to them.
“I think when we get off to good starts, it carries over for the rest of the game,” Paul Pierce said. “We’ve got to rebound a lot better. They dominated us on the glass. Also keep our turnovers down. If we can do those things, I think we play our best basketball and we give ourselves a chance at winning.”
The Celtics have shown that they can win when they don’t do one of those things, but when they do none of those things they get blown out of the gym, as in Game 6.
We should know by the end of the first quarter if both teams have come to play. Once that becomes clear, the Celtics have to do a better job of running their offense.
The Lakers made them play in a crowd in Game 6. Every drive was met by resistance and force. Instead of making them pay for their over-commitment, the Celtics too often allowed themselves to get sucked into trying to make the play themselves.
They have talked all postseason about trust. Now, they have to apply it.
“It really is the game where the players have to get back to remembering all the things they’ve worked on,” Rivers said. “And then, execute it.”
REBOUNDING, REBOUDNING, REBOUNDING
It really is this simple: In their three wins, the Celtics held the Lakers to 10 offensive rebounds or less. When they haven’t taken care of the defensive boards, they’ve lost.
The Celtics will be without Perkins, which changes the dynamics of their interior defense. He is their best rebounder and their best interior defender, and he is also their most physical player.
Without him, Rasheed Wallace and Glen Davis will have to step up their games and that means getting a body on Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom and keeping them out of the paint.
The Celtics also have to do a better job of keeping the Laker guards out of the paint. Once again, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown were able to get past the first defender and cause the Celtics defense to react.
The offensive rebounds are really a function of defensive breakdowns, and so it will have to start at the beginning if they are going to get a different result at the end. This leads us to Rajon Rondo…
C’S NEED A RONDO REVIVAL
Rondo’s entire season has been one long quest for respect. He achieved a measure of that with his first All-Star appearance and then he rocketed into superstardom during the playoffs.
The Lakers have succeeded into making him ordinary, and in truth Rondo has played the willing accomplice. In the finals, he has made only 4-of-17 free throws, and that has seemed to cut down on his aggressiveness. He has also not been able to stick the mid-range jumper with consistency.
Both teams know that if he gets out in transition, he can completely change the game and the Lakers have made a concerted effort to not let that happen.
“He’s a problem,” Bryant said. “He creates a lot of havoc and gets out in transition and crashes the boards extremely well and gives them second opportunities. He’s a problem. If we can do a pretty good job on him, it helps our chances.”
The Celtics were able to spring Rondo free on high pick and rolls with Garnett late in Game 6, and you may see a steady diet of that in Game 7. Phil Jackson noted after the game that the Lakers were fortunate, in his words, that Rondo didn’t do any more damage.
“He has to create a pace,” Rivers said. “I thought he was looking for too much stuff instead of being aggressive. One of the things we told him — Rondo has the best instincts that I’ve ever coached in the open court, and he has to allow those instincts to take over [Thursday]. I thought he allowed his thinking to take over [Tuesday night]. He was trying to run stuff, trying to get guys in stuff.”
Rondo came into this series as the Celtics best MVP candidate. He has to play like one in Game 7.
ALL HANDS ON DECK
Here’s a thought: Given the Celtics depleted frontcourt, and given Shelden Williams ineffectiveness, would a lineup that included Marquis Daniels and Pierce as the forwards work?
It might, and Rivers said he would spend part of practice Wednesday working on a different lineup, just in case.
The only thing we can expect in a Game 7 is the unexpected — especially in this series — and Rivers is going to have to find a way to rest Garnett and get major minutes out of Davis and Wallace.
Beyond Rondo, Ray Allen, Pierce and Garnett the Celtics are going to have to get an unexpected contribution from somewhere, be it from Nate Robinson or Williams or Daniels. Farmar, Brown, Sasha Vujacic and Luke Walton are all candidates for the Lakers.
The only thing we do know is that someone is going to emerge Thursday night.
THE KOBE FACTOR
Kobe Bryant has been short and terse with the media throughout the finals, insisting that nothing matters in the big picture beyond winning this series. He’s too smart and calculating not to know what’s at stake, however.
But Bryant has also shown an ability to change up. With the world expecting him to continue his Game 5 outburst, he instead playing a patient, efficient Game 6. He has studied Tom Thibodeau and the Celtics defense for the past two years and he may know it as well as anyone not named Kevin Garnett.
This is his moment and how he reacts may be the most compelling subplot of the entire game and series.
“He’s their life,” Garnett said. “Every times you speak of Kobe you speak of excellence. Class act, plays with a vengeance and tenaciousness. Well-respected around the league. I can keep going and going.”
Oddly enough, the Celtics may wants Kobe to keep going and going, because every time he has tried to completely dominate a game he has unwittingly played right into their hands.
It is the ultimate conundrum for the ultimate player in the ultimate game: Try and do too much and he may end up leaving Gasol out of the game. Leave anything on the table and he will live with a lifetime of regret.
“Ain’t got nothing to do with me right now,” Bryant said. “It’s got nothing to do with me. I look back, years from now or even when I was a kid, you talk about being in this situation, I’d be really excited. But when I’m in the moment right now, I’ve got to play. I’ve got to focus on that. I can’t focus on the hype about it.”
He may even believe that, but it is his reality.
The Celtics have their own legacies on the line. This might be their final game together, depending on how things work out this summer.
Given all that, and given the stakes, the history and yes the hype it would be a galvanizing moment if Game 7 lived up to all of that. History has shown us that it rarely does, but in a series that has given us a little bit of everything, we have yet to see the one brilliantly-played game that goes down to the wire.
After all this, is that too much to ask?