Expert roundtable: NBA Finals Game 7

Originally Published: June 17, 2010

Kobe BryantJesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesA title isn't the only thing at stake. Legacies of some of the game's biggest names can change forever.

There have been only four Game 7s in the NBA Finals in the past three decades. Until tonight.

The Celtics and Lakers, the two greatest franchises in the history of the league, battle it out in Los Angeles at 9 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN Radio) for the 2010 NBA championship.

Will Boston raise banner No. 18? Or will Kobe, Phil and the Lakers claim their fifth ring in 11 years?

Our NBA experts answer the big questions lingering over the final showdown:

1. Rank the Finals Game 7s from the past three decades in importance.

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop:

Hell of a deal! Just like to point out any way you do this you're certain to not only piss off multiple NBA legends, but also to do so on a day you're likely to see lots of them at Staples Center. But we're paid to be fearless, so here it goes:

1. 1984 (Celtics 111, Lakers 102): A mainstay of the Bird/Magic rivalry that saved the league, this game is in the conversation for one of the greatest Finals ever, and it included awesome and rare things like Cedric Maxwell taking the Lakers to school and Larry Bird goofing around on the bench.

2. 2010 (Celtics at Lakers): I don't buy any of that about this game determining Kobe Bryant's legacy. I see it simply as two very high-profile, super-professional teams with an opportunity to put on a show for the ages.

3. 1988 (Lakers 108, Pistons 105): This one could have been an all-timer. It was a one-possession game in the final minute. Unfortunately, the Pistons' two key possessions came down to a very speculative Dennis Rodman jumper followed by a Joe Dumars turnover -- key underperformances that kept the game from making a bigger mark, and also two key reasons Phil Jackson has the Lakers meditate to avoid spazzing under pressure.

4. 1994 (Rockets 90, Knicks 84): It was the biggest game in the world among the Knicks fans I was hanging out with in New York at the time. But in the real world, this one mattered for certain niche reasons: It changed the definition of the word "John Starks" and introduced the phrase "2-for-18" into the hoops lexicon.

5. 2005 (Spurs 81, Pistons 74): You know what's funny? Even though all kinds of people who are in Los Angeles covering the Finals were at this Game 7, nobody seems to remember this one. I have heard all kinds of mangled memories of the last Finals Game 7. Was it the Lakers? Huh? 2007? This one did not make a big impression. My main memory of this year: The Pistons' offense was amazingly boring. I guess if there's such a thing as karma, they had a loss coming.

J.A. Adande,

1. 1988: The Lakers made good on Pat Riley's guarantee to be first repeat champions since 1969 and solidified their status as team of '80s.

2. 1984: The NBA got its dream of the two biggest stars going seven games in the Finals. The nightmare loss fueled Magic and the Lakers, as they would go on to win three of the next four championship series, two of which against the Celtics.

3. 2010: The latest descendants of NBA royalty duel for their place among the franchise greats.

4. 2005: Allowed Tim Duncan to pull even with Shaq and Kobe in the ring race.

5. 1994: Best thing about this Game 7 was that it mercifully ended this low-scoring series, one of the worst of the shot-clock era.

Kevin Arnovitz, TrueHoop:

1. 1988: A repeat was the holy grail of NBA basketball during this era. The Lakers solidified themselves as the team of decade by knocking off Detroit and becoming the first back-to-back champs since 1969. Dennis Rodman's strange, quick jumper with about 40 seconds left and the Pistons trailing by three was a huge moment.

2. 1984: In retrospect, the Celtics' co-claim as the team of the 1980s seems like it was preordained, but Boston needed this win over the Lakers to establish itself as a memorable squad. Cedric Maxwell promised then delivered a big game.

3. 2010: It's difficult to measure the historical importance of a game in the present day, but a win would give the Lakers their fifth championship in seven Finals appearances over an 11-year span. A Boston victory would ensure even greater posterity for this Celtics team -- even though Garnett, Pierce and Allen have already secured strong legacies individually.

4. 1994: This was the first championship of what we thought of, at the time, as the post-Jordan era. Houston genuinely established a mystique after catching a break with the Sonics' upset in the first round -- though John Starks' 2-for-18 line (0-for-11 from 3-point range) is the most enduring detail.

5. 2005: The Spurs won their third title in seven years with their usual imprint: brutally efficient defense. Only Manu Ginobili posted an above-average individual offensive performance in the decisive game.

Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine:

[+] EnlargeLarry Bird
Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty ImagesTwenty-six years ago, the Celtics beat the Lakers in Game 7 at the Garden for the 1984 title.

1. 1984: This was the first of three Finals matchups between Magic and Bird, the individual rivalry that saved the NBA. While Magic struggled so badly he was being called "Tragic" Johnson, Bird got his revenge for Magic's defeat of him in the 1979 NCAA championship. Magic would gain redemption, winning three of the next four titles, including two against the Celtics.

2. 1994: While this may have been the least exciting of the five series, it had the most impact in that it denied Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks a championship. If the Knicks had prevailed, Ewing would not only be a Hall of Famer but an immortal. Unlike the losing stars in the other Game 7s, Ewing never won a ring, so he never gets his just due -- in New York and elsewhere.

3. 1988: The legend of "Big Game James" was born as James Worthy outshone Magic, Kareem and Isiah in posting the only triple-double of his career (36 points, 16 rebounds, 10 assists). It's very likely that Worthy would not have been a Hall of Famer or one of the top 50 players of all time had he not produced this masterpiece that made the Lakers the NBA's first back-to-back champions in 19 years.

4. 2010: If the Lakers win, some will argue that Kobe is not only the greatest Laker ever but on par with Michael Jordan. If the Celtics win, they go from being a one-time champion to a mini-dynasty.

5. 2005: This was Tim Duncan's first title without David Robinson, solidifying him as an all-time great in his own right.

John Hollinger,

1. 1984: The defining moment in the rejuvenation of the NBA

2. 1988: Might be the most underrated series in sports history.

3. 2010: Huge because of the rivalry and the quest by each "core" for a second title.

4. 2005: Series lacked spice nationally but helped define Duncan's Spurs as all-time greats.

5. 1994: Widely regarded as among the worst Finals in history.

Chris Sheridan,

1. 2010: Yes, this one is the most important because a whole generation -- pretty much everyone 35 and under -- is getting to experience Lakers-Celtics G7 for the first time.

2. 1984: This was the last time the 2-2-1-1-1 format was used, and the travel was grueling: The last four games were Wednesday night at L.A., Friday night at Boston, Sunday afternoon at L.A. and Tuesday night at Boston.

3. 1988: It was the last title for Magic, Kareem and James Worthy, and it was Pat Riley's last in L.A. The Lakers got swept by Detroit in the Finals the next season, and the Showtime era was over.

4. 1994: Pat Riley called it the biggest regret of his career: not subbing Rolando Blackman for John Starks as Starks was going 2-for-18. Also, Hakeem Olajuwon was at his peak and was unstoppable.

5. 2005: It was nice having a Game 7 at the Finals for the first time in 11 years, but the most memorable thing about this series, to me, was how dreadful Games 1-4 were.

Marc Stein,

1. 1984: Failing on the big stage and hearing people call him "Tragic" changed the course of Magic Johnson's career. For the better, obviously. (As a child of the 1980s, I obviously see this series as unforgettable because it revived the storied Celtics-Lakers rivalry that had been dormant for way too long, and basically started what is regarded as the NBA's renaissance.)

2. 1988: Pat Riley's promise at the Lakers' 1987 championship parade that they'd be back parading in a year is one of the most famous guarantees in sports history … mainly because L.A. won this Game 7 to complete the NBA's first repeat since Boston in 1968 and 1969.

3. 2010: Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant, should they lose their first Game 7 in the Finals, would both take a legacy hit since they'd both be a stunning 0-2 against the Celtics in the Finals. And if the Lakers win, that would make 11 rings for Phil as a coach and five for Kobe.

4. 1994: In the first season after Michael Jordan's stunning retirement, Patrick Ewing never came closer to a championship than this Game 7 defeat to the Rockets.

5. 2005: Robert Horry's dagger that saved Tim Duncan in Game 5 is far more memorable than Game 7.

2. Is the title of "NBA's greatest franchise" at stake in Game 7?

Abbott: The pendulum will swing a little, but can such a thing ever really be settled?

Adande: No, the series is even, but the banner battle still belongs to the Celtics, even if the Lakers get to 16.

Arnovitz: The two franchises are most charismatic when pitted against one another. Boston has won more head-to-head matchups, but the Lakers are the Celtics' equal in prestige. That deadlock might be broken Thursday night -- but only momentarily. The shared history between the Celtics and the Lakers is too deep to catapult one franchise indisputably ahead of the other by virtue of a single win.

[+] EnlargeMagic Johnson and Larry Bird
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe battle for the "greatest franchise" wages on.

Broussard: I don't think so. I happen to think the Lakers are the NBA's greatest franchise, even though Boston leads them 17 to 15 in titles. While the Celtics have more titles, most of them came during the 1960s. Since that decade, the Celtics have only won six titles and they endured a 22-year drought before winning in 2008. The Lakers, on the other hand, have been far more dominant of late, winning nine titles in the past 30 years. I also believe the Lakers also have the greater individual players, with Magic, Kobe, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaq, Elgin Baylor and George Mikan eclipsing the all-time Celtics greats.

Hollinger: No, the Hawks and Blazers are better than both of them. … In all seriousness, two honors are secure regardless of the outcome: Boston's as the best single-city franchise in the entirety of NBA history, and Los Angeles as the best of the post-merger era. That's always how I've differentiated L.A. and Boston in the great franchise debate.

Sheridan: No, but it's getting close. Bill Russell & Co. were so dominant in the 1960s that the foundation they built has stood up for 50 years. But Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant are closing in, and a win Thursday plus another championship next year, a three-peat, would give L.A. the tiebreaker.

Stein: Not quite. Not when the Celtics -- even if L.A. prevails -- would still hold a 17-16 lead in overall championships win … and a still-sparkling record of 9-3 when they see the Lakers in the Finals.

3. Surprise, surprise: What X factor might change Game 7?

Abbott: Pau Gasol versus Rasheed Wallace has been a fun curio in the early parts of the series, but with Kendrick Perkins out, this matchup takes center stage. The team that gets the better of this has the inside track on the title. If Wallace is hitting 3s, it'll mean a lot for Boston and will make space for Paul Pierce and the Celtics' other scorers.

Adande: Rasheed Wallace hits 3-pointers from all over the place, disrupts the Lakers' defense and inspires the Celtics to victory.

Arnovitz: Rasheed Wallace's bump in minutes will give the Celtics a different offensive look. They'll be a more perimeter-oriented team, but they'll also be playing without a guy who performs the necessary grunt work that makes the offense flow. Will Wallace's presence out along the arc help them loosen the vise the Lakers' defense applied in Game 6?

Broussard: Rasheed Wallace or Glen "Big Baby" Davis will have to be big for the Celtics to win. They're going to have to fill in defensively for the injured Kendrick Perkins and be the offensive threats that he hadn't been. With their perimeter shooting ability, they can open up the floor for Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo to drive to the basket.

Hollinger: Frontcourt foul trouble. The injuries to Kendrick Perkins and Andrew Bynum mean both coaches could have to go deep into their bench (Shelden Williams? Josh Powell?) or contemplate playing small should other frontcourt players pick up too many early fouls. They just don't have enough bodies anymore.

Sheridan: Ron Artest. I love the guy; he is one of the most mesmerizing players in the NBA to watch from up close, and let's just say he's a wee bit nuts. You add an ingredient like him to an already noxious mix, and anything can happen.

Stein: Would Rondo making free throws qualify as a surprise, surprise at this point? Since he's 4-for-17 (24 percent) for the series, I'd say so. But instead of just limiting this to what happens at the line, let's be clear: Rondo has to play well for the Celts to be able to steal this decider on the road. Boston will probably need big games from Rondo and Ray Allen. The Lakers' defense gets scrambled when the ball is moving and those two can get it going.

4. What do you expect to see in Game 7?

Abbott: This series has not really had a buzzer-beater yet. My one big hope is that we get to see Kobe Bryant shoot a baseline turnaround jumper, over two defenders, with the buzzer sounding and all the marbles on the line. I don't even care if it goes in or not. As a basketball fan, I'm dying for that drama, and I expect we'll get it.

Adande: The Lakers will most likely exploit the absence of Kendrick Perkins inside and use a balanced effort to win.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesWill a last-game dagger determine the 2010 NBA championship?

Arnovitz: Despite Wallace's range, the Lakers' defense will continue to pack the paint, even if it means ignoring Rondo beyond 16 feet, and leaving itself occasionally vulnerable on the perimeter. The Celtics will counter by having Paul Pierce attack the additional space created in the half court with an extra shooter on the floor.

On the other end, the Lakers will spend the first half examining which offensive opportunities exist apart from Kobe Bryant. If enough surface, the Lakers will vary their attack. If Gasol can't establish his spot at the elbow or maximize his post game, then Bryant will dominate the ball -- and the Celtics' defense will have to decide exactly how much of their defense to devote toward him.

I'm going with the Lakers in a last-possession game.

Broussard: I picked the Celtics in seven before the series began, so I'll stick with that. But my gut tells me the Lakers will prevail. I think it'll be a tightly contested game with signature performances by Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.

Hollinger: We haven't had a white-knuckle final-minute finish yet, and I'm wondering if this is the game in which we get one. It would be a fitting conclusion to a mostly evenly matched series. If it gets to that point, I wonder about two things: (1) Rasheed getting a T at the worst time to cost Boston a valuable point, and (2) Hack-a-Rondo. I said L.A. in seven before the series and I'll stick with it now, but unlike Game 6, I think this one may go down to the wire.

Sheridan: I expect to see a dogfight, a close game throughout, one of the best games of Kobe Bryant's career, and a thrilling finish that ends with Paul Pierce making the biggest basket of the night. (And afterward, Broussard and I will toast each other for our sage-like pre-series "Celtics in 7" predictions.)

Stein: The Lakers' AWOL defense and confidence were relocated in Game 6. A paranoid coach would say L.A. won too easily Tuesday night, which could lead to overconfidence that gives Boston its new life. But I don't see it. The combination of Kobe's desperation to make sure the Lakers don't lose a Game 7 on their floor combined with the fact that all of his helpers are feeling good about themselves again -- while the Celts are bemoaning the loss of Kendrick Perkins and Rondo's inconsistency -- adds up to champagne for the home team. (One question from me, though: Why even ask us to try to predict the future in a series with the most fickle momentum in recent memory?)