Finals Game 7: Who will be champs?
We set the stage for the ultimate season finale between the Spurs and the Heat
Prepare for the letdown, Israel. Even if Game 6 had not been an all-time classic -- the best NBA Finals game I've seen since the Bulls and Suns went to triple overtime in 1993 -- even if it had been as one-sided as Games 2-5 turned out to be, Game 7 isn't going to be pretty. These things just aren't, at least not the ones I've covered. The pressure of an ultimate Finals game is too much, the stage is too big, the teams are too familiar with each other for it to be aesthetically pleasing.
Here are the scores from the past three Game 7s in the NBA Finals:
2010: Lakers 83, Celtics 79
2005: Spurs 81, Pistons 74
1994: Rockets 90, Knicks 84
As Tim Duncan said of the energy brought on by the high stakes of a Finals Game 7: "Some people use it the right way. Some people are hurt by it."
And you don't know who will belong to which category. Game 7s are John Starks shooting 2-for-18 or Kobe Bryant misfiring on 18 of 24 shots. At the same time, they're Vernon Maxwell (who didn't get the nickname "Mad Max" because he's a model of efficiency) putting together a true shooting percentage of 72 percent or Pau Gasol (not known as the roughest individual) pulling down 18 rebounds.
So the relevant question heading into Game 7 of Heat versus Spurs: Who shines and who succumbs?
But basically what I'm asking is: What's LeBron going to do?
Interesting question you pose. It's one that's been asked, oh, approximately 283 times since he put on a Heat uniform, but never in this context. Because he has never been in a Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
But LeBron has been in a Game 6 of the Finals as part of the trailing team twice. How he responded to the most recent experience might be a preview of what we'll see in this Game 7.
When LeBron was asked to do his part to save the Heat's championship hopes in Game 6 against the Mavericks in 2011, he offered a rather empty 21 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds, 6 turnovers and a telling minus-24, the worst on his team by far. He was lost in space, as he was for seemingly that entire series.
Tuesday, though, he went to a different place: the playground.
When the Heat's season was ostensibly over late in the third quarter of Game 6, LeBron said, "I know how this looks, and I don't want history to repeat itself," so he played with a ferocity that essentially ignored the playbook. He simply became that aggressive attacker who didn't allow the Spurs' defense to dictate what he did or where he was going.
He was either going to foul out committing nothing but charges, or he was going to lead Miami to a dramatic finish. We all know how that ended.
It's clear at this point that, when LeBron gets desperate, he turns into that almost primitive, instinctive, aggressive athlete who dismisses all refinement and relies heavily on his intimidating physical gifts.
And that's just fine with Heat fans. They would much rather have that than the guy who defers with lightning quickness and chucks up jumpers with little hope.
I think that fire is what you'll get from LeBron in Game 7. It will be a stark contrast to what the Spurs will offer, which is the more reliable execution, and it might just end in another triple-double line like Tuesday's.
Whether it'll be enough will be decided by who joins him on that ride. But if the Heat lose this time, it won't be because LeBron just let it happen.
The LeBron question feels like the biggie, the equivalent of "What's the meaning of life?" in this series. But perhaps the more relevant query is, what will Dwyane Wade do? Will his latest knee injury render him less effective? Will the old knee injury flare up again? Can he post a better plus/minus than the minus-15 he had in Game 6? And what do we make of his newfound negative impact on LeBron when the two share the court?
In Game 6, the reason behind the negative numbers became clear: When Wade and LeBron are in together, Wade goes to strange spots on the floor, spots that tend to bring another defender into LeBron's vicinity. The spacing is horrible. Or Wade takes the ball and LeBron stands in the corner, useless.
It was jarring to hear LeBron, on the eve of Game 7, cite Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers, Chris Andersen and Mike Miller as the playing partners who afforded him the most room to be aggressive. No Wade, no Chris Bosh. The Big Three are about to ride into their biggest game together and LeBron feels most comfortable without the other two? Wow.
As we continue to wonder how Miami's Big Three concept will work, or how much longer these three will be together, can we take a moment and admire how San Antonio's trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili has provided more than a decade of excellence? These guys have been together for 11 years, more than triple the time of Miami's group and more than double Boston's Big Three era, as well as lasting three years longer than Shaq and Kobe, the only other comparable combination in their time. In a Game 7 with so many variables, their sustained greatness is the one thing that can't possibly be diminished, regardless of the outcome.
That makes their performance in these Finals -- even their appearance in these Finals -- more admirable. They don't need this anywhere near as much as the Heat, yet here they are, playing as if it's the only shot they've ever had.
There's a difference in the way we talk about the Spurs.
The Spurs, Duncan, Parker, Ginobili -- they've all already been validated. Win or lose, that group will go down as one of the best to play together, displaying a longevity few franchises can boast, much less with the same core for a decade.
There's also the sense that the Spurs are almost playing with house money, having gotten the good fortune of not facing a healthy Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference playoffs. Combine those factors with the already reserved demeanor of the Duncan-led Spurs and what you have is a team that shouldn't feel nearly as much pressure entering this Game 7 as the Heat.
It's Miami that faces questions of legacy, of a potential dynasty, of whether it can or should retain the core that has brought it to three straight championship series.
The Spurs also have the benefit of being a masterful execution team. There's less pressure on any one player to take over when their crisp ball movement gets them open, familiar, comfortable shots regularly.
All of that should play a larger factor for San Antonio than the emotional letdown of Tuesday night. There should be little carryover from that game, unless the Spurs find themselves in another situation in which they're clinging to a lead and have to replay that scenario.
The Spurs were the victims of a successful recovery from devastation in 2005. In Game 5 against the Pistons in Detroit, the Spurs' Robert Horry hit a game-winning 3-pointer that seemed to rattle the Pistons, who were aiming for back-to-back titles. But that "devastated" group of Pistons still went to San Antonio and, 48 hours later, forced Game 7 with a convincing road win.
Like those Pistons, these Spurs are strong-minded and experienced. What can we expect from them in a Game 7? More of the same.
The Spurs have a better shot of getting over the mental devastation than the typical team because of their disposition. They should be better prepared for the mental challenge of a Finals Game 7 because they have key players who have been there before. If we can define Duncan, Parker and Ginobili as a "team," this will be the first team that has played multiple Finals Game 7s since the Lakers did it in 1984 and 1988. (The Pistons franchise did it between then -- in '88 against the Lakers and 2005 against the Spurs -- but with none of the same players.)
But will they be worse off for that overtime Game 6 because they had to play heavier minutes than they prefer? Gregg Popovich let them, particularly Duncan, go a little longer than normal even in regulation because he was trying to close out. The last thing he needed was five more pressure-packed minutes of game time. Fatigue has been an issue with the Spurs, especially when Parker looks gassed.
Here's another advantage for the Spurs, though: You don't know who would get that "Russell" as the Finals MVP if they win. It's easy to envision Duncan (averaging 18 points and 12 rebounds, with two 20-point games and one 30-point game), Parker (17 points and 7 assists, secured Game 1 with an improbable shot) or Danny Green (two 20-point games, so many 3-pointers I've lost count) getting the award with the right performance tonight. That speaks high-decibel volumes about their team and approach, just as the fact that Miami's lone candidate is LeBron is a reflection of what the Heat have become in these playoffs. It's one last contrast between these teams, as if we didn't have enough, starting with The Decision versus The Duration.
Finally, let's applaud both teams for giving us an NBA Finals that's been competitive without being contentious. It's been carried out with a gentlemanly conduct that was epitomized when Popovich recruited Erik Spoelstra on a game day to join him in offering a public handshake to national anthem singer Sebastien De La Cruz, the 11-year-old Mexican-American who had been picked on by the lowest level of our society: Twitter tough guys. We haven't had shoving matches or vicious elbows in the games or whining about the officiating during the off days.
They gave us an all-time classic in Game 6 and the gift of a Game 7. Although I don't think this game in itself will be worthy of framing and hanging, it will have drama. I have the Heat winning -- and, when it's over, this series will be considered a W for basketball fans, as well.
This game might feature all those elements that have been absent so far, though. There hasn't been nearly the same animosity as there was between the Heat and Pacers, but this game could bring that out of both teams.
Ginobili, in particular, will have some pent-up aggression after his career-worst eight-turnover game. Kawhi Leonard could incite some fury from Heat players if he continues to sneak in for offensive boards or toss out a well-timed wing the way he did while dunking on Miller or drawing a foul against Allen on the break. Andersen's constant activity is always a threat to create irritation.
You can expect the physicality to be ramped up with so much on the line, both with Duncan in the post and with LeBron in the paint.
This might not be a classic in terms of aesthetics or brilliant finishes, the way Game 6 was. But it should bring out some raw emotions, with anger being one of them.
But it's the variety the Spurs can offer that I think gives them the edge tonight. If it comes down to LeBron or bust, it won't end well for the Heat. If their 3-point shooters have another big night, though, then they have a strong chance.
What the Heat can't rely on is the Spurs folding at any time, for any reason. They've absorbed every hit Miami has offered in this series and responded, making even the Heat's two blowout wins in this series a test of endurance.
I think the Spurs' consistency edges out the Heat's spurt-ability in this winner-takes-all. And those yellow ropes will be out, again, to prepare for a San Antonio celebration.
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