No kid stands in his driveway, counting down the seconds before he fires the jumper at the buzzer to win Game 3 of the Western Conference quarterfinals.
It's always Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
Thursday's game is, by definition, different than any other, even before getting into the whole Lakers vs. Celtics thing. Add that in, and the magnitude of the moment grows even more. To say the observing classes- meaning fans and media- are hyper-aware of it all is a shocking exercise in understatement.
Not surprisingly, Kobe Bryant downplayed the significance. "I don't worry about it too much. I just go out there and play hard. I play hard all the time, so I don't need to do anything different for Game 7."
Not that you'd expect Kobe to deliver anything more expansive, given the strict word quota he imposes on himself at this time of year. But I posed the basic question- How do you acknowledge that Game 7 of the Finals isn't like any other game without it becoming overwhelming?- to a few other players and coaches.
"When you say it's still a game, you have to go through the same execution things. You may be moving at a faster rate, you may be playing at a quicker elevation, spirit, et cetera. But if you're not going to be able to do the most basic things, if you come out of your skin- in other words, if you're out of character, things are going to happen awry. They're not going to go right for you. So you have to stay in character. Even though it's not just a game, it's a different type of game, it's something you need to be able to confront and hold your composure in...
...I like the fact that they're trying to remember what the game is about. The game is about the basic things, being able to dribble the ball and shoot the ball and correctly play the game. So those are the things I think are important. They'll acknowledge it in the deeper sense. Sleep is a little bit different the night before, whatever. There's more animation, your nervous system is more activated. Those things are all part and parcel of what yo do. But it's being able to contain that and still play with that energy that's the important thing."
"It's a game you just want to win and do whatever it takes to win. That's how I approach it and try to think about how bad and how much it would hurt if we don't come out as winners. I keep that in mind, that thought in my mind sometimes, just to understand that I have to do everything possible out there in order to help my team in any way I can. So it's a game that you want to just leave everything you have out there and compete as hard as you ever competed. So that's the way I face it."
"It's not another game, but it's basketball and you have to play the game the way it should be played. Treat it like that, like it's a basketball game and I'm going to go play with my teammates, I'm going to be in the right space, I'm going to hustle, I'm going to play hard- it just works itself out."
I spoke as well to Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons, and the results were interesting enough to pass along in their entirety:
Q: Do you acknowledge the difference in the magnitude of this game, and then deal with it?
Cleamons: No, you just want to play. How about Houston last year, to get to Denver? It was a Game 7.
Q: But that was different. Different situation, different opponent.
Cleamons: Don’t make it different. You say it’s just a game, and it is just a game, but if you’re competitive, you don’t ever want to lose, any time. I don’t want to lose. I don’t want to lose the last game of the series. I don’t want to lose the last game of the season. I don’t want to lose tic-tac-toe. Everything I do, I play the best way I can, and that’s to win. And I know that people on [the Lakers'] bench, they’re going to play to win. And that’s what you do, you play to win. It doesn’t make a difference if it’s the first game of the season, the last game of the season, the first game of a playoff, the last game of a playoff- it’s the game, and it’s a game in which you play to win.
Q: So if you’ve prepared yourself with that type of mentality over the course of the season—
Cleamons (smiling): --It should be [just a] game. Not only in the last game of the season, but it’s every time you step across the line. I tell our guys all the time, we prepare you to win and go out to do your best. Even at practice, you lay it on the line every day, so this game [Thursday] it has a bigger importance on the scheme of things because of the magnitude of what it is, but in reality it’s another day of work.
A: So as a team, as players, as a coaching staff, you acknowledge it and then work to get past it?
Cleamons: They all know [how important it is.] So why should I be redundant and tell them things they already know? Go play and have fun. And that’s the most important thing. If you come out thinking something, when you start thinking about things you know what happens? You get tensed up and you can’t react. So why are you going to now overstate stuff that you know is already weighing on their minds? You want to take the air out of it and let them play. Let them play with freedom. Enjoy it. The team that’s going to win tomorrow is the one that’s going to win tomorrow is the team that’s going to do the things they do naturally. Without thinking, without putting more weight on it than is already there.
Q: As a player, how do you avoid doing that?
Cleamons: Just play. Just. Play. If you do it from the first day of practice to the last day of practice, if you do it during every game that you play during the year, then you do what you know what you can do.
Q: So when people talk about the importance of the regular season, of training camp. It’s that. It’s building so that a team can do this- go into a game and perform when the situation is so highly elevated.
Cleamons: That’s the way we attempt to teach, that’s the way I’ve always been taught. So if we can stay true to ourselves, that’s what we’ll do. We’ll come out and just play.
Gasol spoke about using the negative consequences of a loss as motivation, something echoed by Luke Walton after last night's game. To a man, the Lakers all know how horrible this summer will be should they come up short. But most of the comments were about reduction. It's still basketball. You just play. Taking the game and in the face of the greatest pressure working to reduce it to its most basic elements.
One thing that strikes me, though, whether from Kobe's comments or certainly from Cleamons, is the notion of training and practice. Bryant runs through walls every game and works incredibly hard on and off the court so he can look at Game 7 as another game. Cleamons and the coaching staff spend a season grooming players so they can be prepared for this moment. The process is imperfect and the context of Game 7 obviously can't be simulated, but with training the body and mind can be brought to a place of readiness creating the best possible opportunity for success.
The idea of making Game 7 of the Finals as normal an experience as possible is foreign to many fans and writers alike, but really the process isn't much different than what many of us do every day. In one form or another, we all train to excel in something. My day-to-day is, in many ways, preparation for those mornings my editor calls and says "We need a story for Page 1 in ninety minutes. Have fun." Doctors go school to handle complicated diagnoses and surgeries, lawyers to tackle important cases, and so on.
Most people, in one form or another, do something similar in their professional and personal lives. Constantly training, practicing, and improving in order to perform in difficult situations.
It's just that the NBA provides a massively different context utilizing a totally otherworldly skill set, possessed by only the tiniest fraction of the population. Despite lacking the requisite skills, I can on some level identify with the hard work and talent it takes to become a fine chef. It's harder (impossible, actually) to identify with what it takes to drive the lane against Kevin Garnett, see the help coming, and hang in the air long enough to draw contact but still hit a shot in a game watched by tens of millions of people around the world, where it'll be tough to go out in public if you screw up and legacies are formed in the most public of ways. Nothing about my life, experience, and talents gives me the vocabulary.
But it's what these guys do. Those doing it especially get a parade thrown in their honor.