Game 7 of the Finals: A Preview

Tonight’s the big night, Game 7 of the NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. The significance of this game — and this rivalry — to basketball cannot be overstated. This is the Lakers and Celtics’ twelfth Finals meeting against each other; the two franchises hold more than thirty championships. The Celtics seek to win their 18th championship, their second in the last three years; Kobe and the Lakers are looking to repeat, and become the first NBA team to repeat since Kobe and Shaq three-peat at the start of the decade.

Prior to the Finals, Bill Simmons wrote a preview outlining the impact this game could have on the legacies of various players. Going to a Game 7 puts a lot of these predictions in perspective. In one game, several players could move up the list of the greatest players of all time–or fail, in their last opportunity to do so.

The “Big Three” Celtics

It’s fitting that this series has made it to a seventh game, because these Celtics have gone on a remarkable run. They’ve beaten some of the best players in the NBA in quick succession: a 5-game close-out against Dwyane Wade and the Heat; their destruction of LeBron and the Cavs (with a ridiculous 29-18-13 from Rondo in Game 4); Pierce lighting up the Magic (with Nate Robinson helping out in Game 6); and a (potential) upset over Kobe Bryant’s Lakers, the long-time favorites.

All this while coming off a lethargic regular season riddled with injuries, and a championship for Boston makes the “Big Three” Celtics a true NBA dynasty, to be judged against the Spurs or Lakers as one of the best teams of the era. They’d have only two championships, to Shaq’s and Duncan’s three, but a championship this year could raise doubts as to whether Garnett’s injury last year cost them a three-peat.

Rajon Rondo

Rondo: best player on the Celtics? Best PG in the NBA? He's definitely made his mark in the playoffs.

For Ray Allen, this has been a strange series: A record-setting performance in Game 2, followed by 0-fers in the next three games. He wasn’t the reason for their loss on Tuesday, with 19 points, but a big game for Allen in Game 7 could be a game-changer for his legacy. Bill Simmons has said that Allen’s already passed Reggie Miller on his basketball “pyramid;” another NBA Championship (and possible MVP honors if he really lights it up) could propel him above even more of the greatest NBA players. Oh, and he’s a free agent after the season, too.

The impact of this game on Paul Pierce‘s legacy may be even more significant. The MVP of the Finals in 2008, Pierce had his best performance this series in Game 5, the Celtics’ triumphant final game at home. If the Celtics win the series tonight, Game 5 will be remembered as the game where the Celtics took control. If Pierce is dominant and the Celtics win, he has a chance at his second NBA Finals MVP award in three years. A performance like that would shoot Pierce way up the list of NBA greats.

Kevin Garnett‘s situation is more complicated. As Bill Simmons noted, Garnett has reinvented himself over the last year or so, becoming more of a complementary player than the dominant force he used to be. A championship definitely moves Garnett up the ranks, but Garnett’s legacy as a great player already exceeds that of Pierce and Allen.

I actually disagree with most of Simmons’ predictions regarding Rajon Rondo. Winning the Finals doesn’t make Rondo the best point guard in the NBA (though best-defending Point Guard is probably already true); nor would a championship make him “The Athlete With The Highest Approval Rating In Boston” (that title, I think, goes to Tom Brady or Dustin Pedroia). Then again, Rondo hasn’t had a great series, except for Games 2 and 5. Still interesting, though, is that he still has a chance at Finals MVP (with his big performances in Boston’s most important wins) and that two titles this early in his career could put him on a Hall of Fame trajectory (which would give this Celtics team FOUR Hall of Fame players). That being said, Rondo needs to improve his Free Throw shooting (his % has gone down in each of the succeeding playoff series this year) and his jump shooting in order to pass Chris Paul (or Nash or Deron Williams) as the best PG in the NBA.

The Kobe Bryant Lakers

Kobe Bryant

This game could put Kobe solidly in the top 10 players of all time. Or it could cast doubt on his sole championship without Shaq. Tonight we'll find out.

With Gasol, Fisher, and Artest inconsistent, the real story here is Kobe Bryant. Kobe has been fantastic, though his 30-7-4 with 43% shooting in the Finals has been worse than his performance against the Suns or the Jazz. While he got in foul trouble in Game 2, a key game for the Celtics, and he’s been inconsistent from long range, Kobe has undoubtedly been the MVP of the Lakers–and if the Lakers win the championship, he’ll almost certainly be Finals MVP.

But that’s what it comes down to. Game 7 will have a bigger impact on the legacy of Kobe Bryant than any other player on the court. A loss throws the 2009 championship into question (with Garnett’s injury keeping the Celtics out of the Finals) and may leave an asterisk on his career (*never beat the Celtics). If he wins, he’s solidly in the top-10 of all time… with no end in sight. This could be the most important game of Kobe’s career — finally on his own, series entirely on his shoulders, against the Laker’s most hated enemy.

Predictions

Interestingly, both of the two people I talk to most about basketball said the same name when I asked for predictions about Game 7, and it’s a guy whose name is not mentioned above: Rasheed Wallace.

Here are their predictions:

“Sheed plays the game of his life. Rondo breaks free. Key 3 pointers are the keys. LA’s bench chokes. Pierce will have double-digit rebounds. Boston 96 LA 90.” – Garron

“Rasheed Wallace has got to get down in the low post and make a difference. If he can hold his own in the post, the Celtics will take Game 7. If he drifts out to the perimeter and jacks up long 3s, LA is taking home the title.” – Will

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of either team (I’m a New York sports fan). I do like Ray Allen (a UConn alum) and I’m definitely interested in the potential history-making. My prediction, however, is less optimistic than my fellow Bostonians: Lakers by 10. While I wouldn’t mind seeing Boston take home another championship while I’m here, I think there’s too much on the line for Kobe. I think he’s going to show us why he deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest players of all time. LeBron James is probably the best player in basketball right now, but Kobe Bryant is close and Kobe definitely has a more well-rounded game. A clutch moment tonight could cement that in people’s minds. What’s more, without Kendrick Perkins, the Celtics will (as mentioned above) rely on Rasheed Wallace. I’m not confident the Celtics won’t get dominated inside.

But anything can happen. Odom and Gasol will need to show up, and the Lakers need to limit the damage inflicted by Artest when he starts jacking up 3s. What’s more, a return to form from Garnett or Pierce could turn things upside-down (like Game 5) even with a virtuoso performance from Kobe. For a new basketball fan like myself (or for anyone with even a marginal interest in sports), it’ll definitely be worth watching.

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