Expect a classic in Game 7 of Celtics-Lakers

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LOS ANGELES – These NBA Finals promised to be direct descendents of the most memorable in basketball history, the remaking and recasting of Chamberlain and Russell, Magic and Bird. History guaranteed an epic, but the present has delivered a choppy series long on blowouts and short on drama. There have been magnificent performances, genius talent, but ultimately this is a series searching to frame itself for the ages.

These are a Finals desperate for a Game 7, and maybe now Kobe and Gasol, Pierce and Garnett, will transform a snarling, unkempt series into an epic.

The Celtics’ Kevin Garnett hangs on to the ball as he struggles with the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, left, Pau Gasol, right, and Derek Fisher during Game 6.
(Mark J. Terrill/AP Photo)

History comes calling on Thursday night, comes for the biggest stars and the most improbable heroes. These Game 7s still bring out the best and worst of everyone, when makes and misses belong to immortality and infamy. There are such legacies on the line, a lifetime of rejoicing and regret awaiting these franchises.

Kobe Bryant(notes) tries to match Magic Johnson and his five Lakers titles, tries to move within one of the ghost he’s always chasing, Michael Jordan. Paul Pierce(notes) tries to do something that Larry Bird and Kevin McHale never did in the 1980s, and that’s twice beat the Lakers for championships. Something’s probably going to happen on Thursday night that no one’s ever going to forget.

Every night, these Finals have belonged to the most desperate team and perhaps that was all prelude to a Game 7 now. Everything changed so fast for the Boston Celtics. They had come out here needing one victory to close out the Lakers, and suddenly the Lakers were running over them, and Kendrick Perkins(notes) had crumpled to the floor, clutching his knee. He’s out for Game 7 with sprained ligaments in his right knee, sources told Yahoo! Sports late Tuesday night, and now it gets so much harder for the Celtics.

Make no mistake: Between Perkins’ knee and a decided 89-67 victory on Tuesday night, so much has swung back to the Lakers now. They had such pressure on them, such heaviness hung in the L.A. air, but they never let the Celtics challenge them in Game 6. Kobe Bryant’s brilliance revealed itself in every way. For those Celtics privately praying that he would grind these Lakers into submission between Games 5 and 6, they would be disappointed to discover that Bryant’s leadership has evolved into that of an MVP in every way.

”He spent the last 24 hours building everyone back up,” one source said, and it played out perfectly on the floor. Pau Gasol(notes) danced with a near triple-double, and Ron Artest(notes) played forcefully on the offense and defensive ends. When they needed him most, Kobe delivered these Lakers vintage Kobe. He had 26 points, 11 rebounds and four steals. Everywhere you looked on the floor, Bryant could be found in the fray.

Everyone expected him to come out and try to beat the Celtics himself, and it wouldn’t be long until Bryant had gotten his teammates going. It wouldn’t be long until they had turned those Game 4 and 5 losses into fuel for a ferocious Game 6 return to Staples Center, until Game 6 had blurred into Game 7 for the Lakers.

And when it was over, Bryant stayed on message for teammates. When pushed to expound on a supposed gratitude for the chance to be part of a Game 7, he wouldn’t dare let himself – nor these Lakers – get off that easy. ”The opportunity is not something that makes me happy,” he countered. ”It’s winning and taking advantage of the opportunity that makes me happy. That buzzer goes off and we’re not victorious? Am I thankful for the opportunity?

The last time the Celtics beat the Lakers on the road in a Game 7 was the final game for Bill Russell in 1969, pictured above against Wilt Chamberlain.
(AP Photo/File)
Game 7 historical primer

The NBA Finals has reached a seventh game 16 times with the Celtics beating the Lakers four times. (Game 7 home team in bold)

Season Winner Loser Score
2004-05 San Antonio Spurs Detroit Pistons 81-74
1993-94 Houston Rockets New York Knicks 90-84
1987-88 Los Angeles Lakers Detroit Pistons 108-105
1983-84 Boston Celtics Los Angeles Lakers 111-102
1977-78 Washington Bullets Seattle SuperSonics 105-99
1973-74 Boston Celtics Milwaukee Bucks 102-87
1969-70 New York Knicks Los Angeles Lakers 113-99
1968-69 Boston Celtics Los Angeles Lakers 108-106
1965-66 Boston Celtics Los Angeles Lakers 95-93
1961-62 Boston Celtics Los Angeles Lakers 110-107 (OT)
1959-60 Boston Celtics St. Louis Hawks 122-103
1956-57 Boston Celtics St. Louis Hawks 125-123 (2OT)
1954-55 Syracuse Nationals Fort Wayne Pistons 92-91
1953-54 Minneapolis Lakers Syracuse Nationals 87-80
1951-52 Minneapolis Lakers New York Knicks 82-65
1950-51 Rochester Royals New York Knicks 79-75
Source: NBA

”Nope.”

These Lakers have arrived where everyone expected them this season, within a victory of a championship celebration at the Staples Center. They’ve been the best team this season, and they still have the two best players in this series. Yet, the Celtics have such a toughness, such a fortitude born out of their Big Three and Rajon Rondo(notes). Doc Rivers is an elite NBA coach, a magnificent leader of men and they can win one game without Perkins. Forty-one years ago, the Celtics beat the Lakers in a Game 7 at the Great Western Forum. All they talked about that night were owner Jack Kent Cooke’s balloons awaiting to drop from the rafters. For those Celtics, it was the end of the run. Bill Russell was the player coach, and that would be his 11th title in 13 seasons. This time, it feels like that for Boston. This is the last run for a core so advanced in age, and Garnett and Pierce and Allen will bring hell’s fury to make one final stand in Game 7.

”It’s Lakers-Celtics, the biggest rivalry in NBA basketball – seven games,” Rajon Rondo marveled.

”That’s where we’re supposed to be,” Ray Allen(notes) said.

Seven games, seventh heaven for these Celtics and Lakers, and it feels like this series started all the way back with Jerry West and Bill Russell, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish. It just feels like Kobe and K.G. picked this up two years ago, and kept going with it. Something tells you that the best of these Finals, that the epic, is still waiting to unfold on Thursday night.

Here comes a forever night in the NBA, a forever fight to the finish, a Celtics-Lakers death-grip still unsettled. All those years, all that history, and it comes flooding into the surround sound of Staples Center for Game 7. This pedestrian series can still turn into something unforgettable. As much as anything, these Celtics and Lakers are right where they’re supposed to be, right where these two franchise always were: Chasing a championship banner all the way to the end, all the way to the last breath of a basketball season.

Adrian Wojnarowski is the NBA columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Adrian a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Jun 16, 2010