To say that the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics will find themselves in rare, historic company come Thursday is not simply to pay lip service to the mystique of a champion-deciding NBA Finals Game 7.
Now, there will still some need to scale back the hyperbole that is sure to be spewing in the lead-up to Thursday night’s tilt. This Lakers-Celtics series has been a ratings dream for ABC, but hardly a memorable, epic series destined to live on via ESPN Classic.
For one thing, not one of the series’ first six games has seen each team concurrently playing to their full potential, so we still don’t know who the better team is, and we may never know.
So, then, what does it all mean? What is on the line at Staples Center on Thursday night? I’m glad you asked.
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For the Celtics, this could very well represent a last shot at glory for the current incarnation of the team. Ray Allen is a free agent after this season, and there is some question as to the level of interest on either side of extending the relationship.
Paul Pierce is another question mark moving forward, particularly if Allen leaves and Boston GM Danny Ainge opts to try and fast track a rebuilding effort through a trade of The Truth.
Kevin Garnett, meanwhile, is likely to stick around, but who knows how long his body will allow him to play at a high level.
Since coming together, the “Big Three” have achieved their ultimate goal of an NBA title. But how will the legacy of Pierce-Garnett-Allen be viewed should they fail to capitalize on a 3-2 Finals lead against the hated Lakers?
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Los Angeles doesn’t have to look ahead to find meaning, as their nucleus is likely to stay intact whether or not head coach Phil Jackson elects to remain on the bench.
Instead, they find their 2009 title win firmly on the hot seat.
The ’09 Championship, which established Kobe Bryant’s ability to win in the alpha dog role, came at a time when Boston struggled to overcome Garnett’s wonky knees and ultimately fell to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. If the Celtics win their second title in three years at the expense of the Lakers, doesn’t that devalue an ’09 win whereby L.A. benefited from injury woes?
Conversely, if L.A. can get the win, the would-be back-to-back champs find themselves unquestionably atop the NBA hierarchy.
As for basketball fans and NBA observers outside of Massachusetts and California, this game could carry a great deal of meaning in terms of team structure, specifically the superstar-related ideology that permeates the league.
Dating back to the mid-80’s Celtics-Lakers rivalry, NBA champions have been anchored by a headlining superstar, with very few exceptions. The Celtics had Larry Bird and the Lakers had Magic Johnson, setting the precedent that ultimately led to multiple ring-winning dominant forces like Michael Jordan (Chicago), Isiah Thomas (Detroit), Tim Duncan (San Antonio), Dwyane Wade (Miami) and, of course, Bryant. The only anomalies in the last quarter-century were the mid-90’s Houston Rockets (they had a “Big Three” of Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler), the 2004 Detroit Pistons (no alpha dog amidst Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and Ben Wallace) and the 2008 Celtics.
To recap, that is 22 of the past 26 NBA Championships awarded to teams that boast an elite superstar.
Naturally, such a trend leans heavily towards the need to have such a player. The problem, as we’ve seen with the Lakers at times during the Finals, is that if said superstar is struggling or being successfully contained, it’s difficult for the rest of the team to break from the established pecking order and step up. Pau Gasol, in particular, has been underwhelming against Boston, largely because of the extent to which he’s ceded to the assertive Bryant.
The Lakers are at their most vulnerable when Bryant gets into “give-me-the-ball” mode and, consequently, his teammates are left with little to do but stand around. It isn’t a coincidence that his two highest scoring outings of the series happen to have come in losses.
On the other side of the court, you have a team big on chemistry and ball distribution, but no player as dangerous as No. 24.
In the end, Bryant can make all the difference here, and that could be good news for L.A. but it also could work in Boston’s favour.