So I was wrong about Game 6. Completely wrong. I expected the same themes to continue from Games 4 and 5, that being the Celtics completely out-hustling, out-muscling, and out-shooting the Lakers. I expected LA’s offense to continue its struggles, requiring Kobe to kick-start it all too often, and fizzling out late in the game when they needed a bucket.

None of that happened. Instead the Lakers attacked from the opening tip. They out-hustled and out-muscled the Boston front line and comprehensively won the rebounding war. They forced turnovers, blocked shots, and harrased Pierce and Ray on the perimeter. At no stage in this game did the Celtics look comfortable on offense – LA’s defense really dictated the terms of this game. You could argue it was the best defensive effort from the Lakers all postseason.

And it really was all about their defense. If you look at the box-score you’ll see LA’s offensive numbers weren’t great. They didn’t shoot a high percentage from the field (41.8%), they only shot 6-19 from three-point range, and they didn’t exactly get to the free-throw line a lot (19 attempts). Kobe didn’t explode (26 points), Gasol had more assists than buckets, and Fisher & Bynum combined for 1-5 on the night. Even the much-heralded bench only shot 10-30 in this game. So if you looked at the offensive numbers alone, you wouldn’t think the Lakers played well.

But it was all about their defense. Artest did a fantastic job on Pierce forcing him into tough contested jumpshots for most of the night. Fisher and Sasha were relentless chasing Ray and did a much better job at resisting the temtpation to help on doubles on KG. Kobe defended Rondo perfectly, and by perfectly I mean giving up 2-3 meters and forcing him to shoot J’s (Rondo finished 5-15 on the night). Gasol did a much better job on KG mano-e-mano, a task undoubtedly made easier without having to worry about Kendrick Perkins.

And how bout Kendrick Perkins. The injury is a blow to the Celtics, no doubt, but they’re not as doomed as most people are making out. It fundamentally changes their defensive identity and increases the liklihood that the Lakers will again win the rebounding war. But it does make them a little more potent offensively with Sheed or Big Baby in the line-up. Ironically, it might even make Bynum redundant if he struggles to guard Sheed/KG away from the basket.

I’ve had a bunch of Celtics fans tell me Perkins’ injury “is so unfair”, yet these are the same people that have told me “injuries are no excuses” when I bring up Andrew Bynum’s health. While I’m gutted for Perkins and the Celtics, his injury will ensure that the loser of the 2010 Finals can’t pull the “injury excuse” card. The Celtics will have to prove they can win without their starting center. The Lakers will have to prove they can win with their starting center at 20% capacity. They pretty much cancel eachother out, especially when you consider the Lakers lost in ’08 without Bynum.

On to the votes then.

3 votes – Kobe Bryant. Now has his hands firmly clasped around the Finals MVP trophy if the Lakers win Game 7, and possibly even if they lose it. Has been hands-down the best and most consistent player over Games 4, 5 and 6 of this Finals series. In Game 6 he managed to balance his responsibilities perfectly – setting up team mates and trusting them to make plays, and then scoring when he needed to without dominating the offense for 3-4 minute patches. You could also tell Kobe was making a concious effort to get deep positionining on rebounds for this game. He finished with 11, making it the equal-highest rebounding tally of his postseason and only the second time he’s hit double-figures. When you combine it with Kobe’s excellent help defense (4 steals), there’s little question he was the best player in this game.

2 votes – Pau Gasol. Pau finally manned up and delivered the kind of effort we expect from him every game. They Lakers ran a lot more offense through Pau and surprise surprise, they ended up kicking butt. It really is a simple formula for the Lakers, because Gasol might be their best decision maker and play maker, even when he’s distributing in the post. What other 7-footer does this?

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Defensively he asserted himself on the boards and banged bodies with KG from the get-go. It was a completely differnet Pau Gasol from Game 5, which is lucky for Pau, because had he not put in a dominant performance in this game the “soft” tag would have been back on the forefront of everyone’s mind.

1 vote – The Lakers Bench. Just for actually showing up. Do you realise LA have by far the worst bench of any Conference Finalist this season? I’d take Orlando’s, Boston’s or Phoenix’s bench over LA any day. It makes you appreciate how good the Lakers starters really are. So when Sasha, Farmer, Odom and Shannon Brown show up like they did in Game 6 it makes the Lakers practically unbeatable. Sasha draining threes, Jordan Farmar dunking on KG, Shannon Brown dunking on the exosphere… these things are generally signs for opposition fans that you are going to lose.

On to my brief Game 7 thoughts:

I think Rasheed Wallace could be the game-breaker in Game 7. I have watched him closely for several years – he was my favorite player in the league between 2005 and 2007, hands down. He usually shows up for big games. He has proved he can defend Gasol very well, at least when he’s not overplaying and getting whistled for frustration fouls. And when he’s draining his threes, he’s a very dangerous offensive player. I have absolutely no doubt Sheed can get the Celtics 20+ points in Game 7 if they go to him. The only problem, really, is rebounding. Rasheed Wallace gave up on rebounding in early 2008. He just doesn’t do it anymore. Doesn’t box-out well, can barely jump, and drifts on the perimeter too much to be in a rebounding position anyway. It really places a lot of pressure on Kevin Garnett, who himself often plays away from the rim. So Sheed is a double-edged sword for the Celtics. He could either win them Game 7, or be the sole reason why they lose it.

Of course, the player that most intrigues me for game 7 is Kobe Bryant. What will he do? Here’s what I’m predicting. At some point in this game, maybe after sinking a few J’s or in the fourth when the game is tight, Kobe Bryant will have a realization. A realization that this Game 7 is an opportunity for ultimate basketball immortality. He’s already a top 10 player of all time. His legacy won’t be tarnished if he loses tomorrow. But if he wins it with a heroic performance, he achieves something very few NBA greats can lay claim to. Michael Jordan never played in a Finals Game 7. Shaq never did. Tim Duncan played in one but hardly dominated. Magic Johnson played in a couple, lost one, and wasn’t even the best player in the other (Worthy was Finals MVP). Even Larry Bird wasn’t the best player in the 1984 Game 7 against the Lakers (Cedric Maxwell was).

Kobe knows all of this. If he goes for 30+, makes spectacular plays and all the big shots down the stretch, he’s guaranteed himself an ESPN Classic Game 7 that will be replayed for all eternity. And let’s face it, that might be the single biggest missing item on Kobe’s career resume. A dominant, meaningful Finals performance for the ages.

Kobe knows this, and at some point during Game 7 it just might start tugging at his ego a little too hard for him to resist. If he does resist and sticks to the team game, a la Game 6, it could be a re-defining moment in Kobe’s career. If he doesn’t, he will either receive the Kobe-hating wrath that he’s become fully familiar with by this stage, or he’ll go down as the greatest hero in Laker history. Just another day for the Mamba really.

………

I still think the Celtis will win, and here’s why. If you had to pick 5 players from either team to play one game that your life depended on, for 48 minutes, who would you honestly pick? I’m talking about guys that you absolutely know will show up when it matters. Guys with big-game mentalities who have proven it time and time again.

1st is Kobe and that is a no-brainer. 2nd is probably Paul Pierce, with Ray Allen in 3rd – feel free to interchange those two. 4th is KG for me, because I know he will bring crazy intensity and defense, and that stuff is worth gold in a game 7. 5th is probably Rondo because of his ability to make big plays and be in the right spot at the right time, whether its a big steal or offensive rebound.

Why doesn’t Pau Gasol get a gig? Because by nature, he is not a dominant player. He cannot and will not put a team on his shoulders and carry them to victory. He is the second most talented player on the floor, yes, but I’m not relying on him to make a play with my life on the line, not ahead of Ray or Pierce.

And if you wanna play this game for the bench, I’ll take Sheed, Tony Allen, Big Baby and Nate over Odom (who I’ve seen flat-out choke too many times) and anyone else on the Lakers roster. Boston just have more big-game players in my opinion. More guys that will not hesitate to step up and take big shots. More guys who rely on heart and hustle than skill and execution.

Because that’s what a game 7 comes down to. Heart. Forget your X’s and O’s. Forget your injuries and bench rotations. It’s about who wants it more and who can will themselves beyond the pain barrier.

The Celtics have a team better built for situations like this. The Lakers have the one player who was born for it.

The team will always prevail.


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