One win. That is what the Lakers needed coming into Game 6 of the Finals on Tuesday. One win not to avenge old losses, but to allow for future opportunities.
One win not to settle a grudge dating back several years, but to enable themselves the ability to make history.
One win was not going to establish a new identity, or to resolve their collective failures for Game 5. A win would simply allow them another opportunity to accomplish their goal. It would allow them to continue competing.
And now, after denying the Celtics a chance to claim a title from them by virtue of a complete and utter smackdown of a win, the Lakers still need just one win. Only this time it is not to guarantee the chance to fight another day. This next win is to guarantee a spot in history.
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One game is left in the NBA season. Thursday night, someone is going to win another ring. That wouldn’t have been true had the Lakers not responded Tuesday night the way they did since it would already be over. Yet thanks to their defensive aggressively, their hustle, and their simplified offensive game plan, here we are.
There will be much said about Game 7 over the next few days. The truism that the team who starves more for a championship will always win it will be trotted out shamelessly (perhaps because it is true).
There are very few between-game adjustments the coaching staffs can make at this point – after the past six games, these teams know who each other are and the question simply becomes which team executes better. There will be no great strategic swings. Heart and hustle and trust will dictate who will be our champion.
For the Lakers, it will once again be a matter of defense. In Game 6, they held the Celtics to their lowest point total in Boston’s NBA Finals history. They moved their feet to cut off passing lane, they tightened up on the ball carrier, and they did not allow easy putbacks and transition points.
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All of that caused Boston to post a point total tied for the second lowest in a Finals game in the shot-clock era. The Celtics suffered the fourth largest margin of defeat for a team that was one win away from winning the NBA championship. But you’d be crazy to think Boston is fearful of the opportunity they have on Thursday to respond.
There is no room for fear at this stage. No time of it. Limp and lousy as Boston looked in Game 6, they just as easily may throw a switch and be lights-out on Thursday. It would be a shock to see them be pushed around and outworked the same way they were in this game. After all, the Lakers were a wounded animal who was now back on familiar ground. The fight had shifted to their home turf – it would almost be more surprising if they hadn’t responded so brazenly.
From Ron Artest’s early block on Rajon Rondo to Jordan Farmar’s dive for a loose ball, these Lakers showed a flurry of activity that made it hard to see any way they would lose this night. Their movement was better, their cuts sharper, and their defensive pursuit was on point than at any time since the series opener.
The Lakers’ leader, Kobe Bryant, was his consistent, excellent self. 11 early points set the tone that this was a game he was ready to dominate if it became necessary. But it didn’t. Yes Bryant’s 26-point, 11-rebound, three-assist, four-steal line looks great. But he had help this time, and lots of it.
His sidekick Pau Gasol’s performance drove the team. Gasol was one assist shy of a triple double with 17 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists and three blocks. This was the sort of excellence we know him to be capable of, and that was lacking in Game 5. The much maligned Ron Artest even chipped in as well, finishing with 15 points and six rebounds as he outscoring Paul Piece.
As a team the Lakers outrebounded the Celtics handily, which really broke the game open. They were up 30-13 on the glass at half, and 39-24 through three quarters. They also outscored the Celtics in the paint by eight, had five more steals, and 11 more second-chance points.
Those are the coaches points, the hustle points, that win game at this level, and the ones that weren’t there for Los Angeles in Boston.
There can be no let up though. Boston is 2-0 in the playoffs after it has suffered a loss by 20 or more points. Further, Boston’s bench will not produce another no-show in Game 7. It had outscored the Lakers in four of the first five games, but on Tuesday did not have a single point through the first three quarters while the Lakers’ bench put up 24 points themselves. That is not going to happen again, and Rasheed Wallace is unlikely to produce another 0-7 performance.
Boston couldn’t do anything right Tuesday while the Lakers could do no wrong. Just 48 hours earlier the roles were reversed. Remembering that, it is easy to see how unpredictable Game 7 looks to be. The team that wins on Thursday cannot wait for the moment to come to them. They cannot passive look for the ball, or wait for rebounds. They must demand ball possession and attack the glass with everything they can muster. They can’t be a step slow, as the Celtics were in Game 6. They can’t think strategically about the next game.
Everything else has been prelude to this. Game 7 is a reality. Both teams will have to live for the moment on Thursday, because history is only kind to those that actively go out and write it.
And make no mistake, that is the opportunity Thursday’s game presents – a chance for one of these teams to place themselves in the hall of the game’s legends. Neither team will be victims of their own fate. Instead, one will be the master of their fate, and authors of their own history.
See you Thursday.