Despite the fact that the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers have met in the NBA finals 12 times – and together account for more than half of the league’s 63 championships – tonight’s game represents only the fifth time the series has reached a game seven.
Because Boston has won all four previous seventh-game meetings with the Lakers, and lead the NBA championship count 17 to 15, the stakes are that much higher in this classic NBA match-up.
The rivalry, heightened by the social dimensions of East Coast vs. West Coast, working class grit vs. Hollywood glitz, and old tradition vs. air-conditioned luxury, is credited with saving the NBA during the low attendance and TV ratings of the 1980s. But the classic meetings between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in 1984, 1985, and 1987 died off with the retirements of Bird and Magic and the rise of the Chicago Bulls for a five-championship dynasty in the 1990s.
After the Lakers won three championships in the 2000s, the Celtics rose to prominence again as well, beating the Lakers in the finals in 2008, the teams' first finals clash in 21 years, reintroducing the rivalry to a new generation.
In tonight’s decisive game, the Lakers will have home court advantage. All eyes are on the key new player for L.A., Ron Artest, and Boston’s Rajon Rondo, who is considered by most a much improved player over 2008.
“Artest had been awful in game 5 Sunday in Boston,” wrote sportswriter Broderick Turner in the Los Angeles Times. “All anyone wanted to talk about was Artest’s offense, many wondering if he’ll have it for Game 7 Thursday night at Staples Center.”
The Celtics face a large void in the absence of center Kendrick Perkins, who was taken out of Game 6 with a knee injury that some say led directly to the Lakers’ 22-point blowout win.
“With Perkins out, the Celtics missed their physical presence whose usual role is to bang Pau Gasol around,” wrote Los Angeles Times reporter Baxter Holmes.
Celtics captain Paul Pierce lamented the loss of Perkins, but framed it as a chance for others to shine. "It's unfortunate that we lose one of our guys who have been so big for us in the playoffs and in this series, especially with his strength and his lift," Pierce said Wednesday. "But that means other guys got to be ready to step up. We've got Big Baby [Glen Davis], we've got Rasheed [Wallace], and if possible we've got Shelden Williams."
The Celtics did beat the Lakers at Staples Center in this Finals series – in game two – so it is possible, say Boston fans. But sports analysts say it's not likely. It will come down to the Celtics' defense against Bryant, and whether he can get enough team support from Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Shannon Brown, and Derek Fisher. On the Celtics' side, Ray Allen could get hot again after breaking the NBA single-game record of three-pointers (eight) in game two before going ice cold, missing 18 straight.
Fans on both coasts are poised for history that can revolve around a single shot – such as a buzzer beater by Sam Jones in game four of the 1969 finals. The Celtics won game seven that year by just two points (108-106) after Lakers coach Butch Van Breda Kolff famously defied Laker owner Jack Kent Cooke’s personal order to put Wilt Chamberlain back in the game.
Hall of famer Jerry West got the only consolation for Lakers fans that year – becoming the only NBA Finals Most Valuable Player ever to have played for the losing team. Besides getting the MVP award, West also received a new, Celtics-green Volkswagen Beetle, adding insult, many said, to injury.