Do not try to bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead, try to realize the truth ... There is no spoon.
Most of you will recognize the above quote as coming from The Matrix. I won't delve too deeply into a plot that is too deep, but the point of the quote is that, when faced with the impossible, you should not question the validity of the specific rules that are being broken to create the impossibility. Instead, you should realize there are no rules.
That's the 2010 NBA Finals in a nutshell. There is no valid set of rules that explains the events we've seen so far. There is no spoon. No matter how this series ends up, the "impossible" has already happened. Phil Jackson is currently 47-0 when his team wins the first game of a playoff series. The past 10 times an NBA Finals has been tied 1-1, the team that has won Game Three has won the series. And yet, the Celtics have never lost a Game Seven in the NBA Finals, having won seven times under those circumstances. A team has won the last two games after facing a 3-2 deficit only twice in the last 25 years. Of course, one of those teams just happened to be the Lakers. Improbable is a better word than impossible to describe these feats, as they are all stats that had to be disproven eventually. But at some point along the roller coaster that has been this series, it has been improbable that either team would win, based upon the analysis and historical data available at the time. Now, one team has to win.
That is what Game Seven means. That is what Lakers-Celtics means. You've been given six games' worth of evidence, and with that evidence, all that you can prove is that nothing about the upcoming game can be proven. Six games, with three wins by either team. Each game won has been accomplished in a different way. Each game lost has involved a new problem to solve. Nothing has been consistent. Few patterns have emerged. Every player has shown the capability to succeed on the highest stage, and fail on the simplest level.
It is said that a wise man knows that he knows nothing at all. If that's the case, I'm the wisest man in the world when it comes to Game Seven, because I know I don't know shit.
That's not to say I don't have knowledge about these two teams and how they match up. I've got plenty of that. We all do. Let's talk about that knowledge, so that you can see how unhelpful it is.
- We know that both teams sport the capability to make their opponent's lives a living hell because of stellar defense. And yet, the Celtics have three games above the 1.10 points per possession mark in this series to the Lakers' two (translation: good offense) and statistically, they are the team performing worse in that area over the six games (1.03 to 1.07 overall).
- We know that the team that has played with greater energy has won every game. It feels a little foolish even saying that, because it's a bit like saying the team that scores the most points will win the game, and it's subjective analysis either way. However, what makes this relevant is the way each team's energy has waxed and waned so dramatically in this series. It's the effing NBA Finals, and yet each team has put together game efforts of epic proportions, and games in which they collectively shat the bed. That's a big part of the reason why, despite the series being so neck-and-neck overall, no specific game has had a whole lot of drama down the stretch.
- We know that rebounding seems to be very important. The team that has won the rebounding battle has won every single game. There's just one problem ... we've seen games in which both teams were not just better, but dominant, on the glass. Check the stats: Game One - Lakers +11; Game Two - Celtics +5; Game Three - Lakers +8; Game Four - Celtics +7; Game Five - Celtics +1; Game Six - Lakers +13. Right now you're probably thinking that looks to be tilting towards the Lakers, and you're right, it does. However, in the game after owning a rebounding edge, the Lakers have seen the Celtics pick up an average of 15.5 rebounds on them in the next contest. The Lakers owned a big edge in Game Six.
- We know that the Celtics will be without a key contributor in the middle, with Kendrick Perkins having his season prematurely taken away by a cruel and rather thorough knee injury. We also know that Andrew Bynum has become increasingly limited as this series has progressed. This would also seem to be advantage Lakers, but Bynum is more important to the Lakers than Perkins is to the Celtics, so one can't even be sure of that effect.
The broad patterns don't seem to have helped to enlighten us much, so let's look at individual games.
- The Lakers took Game One behind a dominant rebounding effort, and by making the Celtics defense look like Swiss cheese en route to a PPP of 1.16. The Laker guards got to the rim at will, and Kevin Garnett aged 30 years before our very eyes. This was the best offensive performance the Lakers had all series, with the only other offensive display even remotely resembling this one being Game Three.
- The Celtics took Game Two, with Ray Allen hitting 8-of-11 three pointers (seven in the 1st half), and Rajon Rondo closing it out in the second half, getting a triple double along the way. By the way, those eight threes for Ray Ray account for 80% of the threes he's hit in the entire series, and his three-point percentage on the series is lower than offensive stalwarts like Ron Artest, Sasha Vujacic, Nate Robinson and Marquis Daniels. To be fair, at 1 for 1, Marquis is kicking everybody's ass.
- In Game Three, the Lakers won thanks to the heroic efforts of Derek Fisher, who went 5-for-7 in the final frame for 11 of his 16 points, countering Kevin Garnett's 25 points on 16 shots. Did I mention that Fisher is shooting sub 40%, with not a single made three-pointer, on the series?
- In Game Four, the Celtics couldn't throw a rock into the ocean for three quarters, scoring 60 points (and 0.92 PPP)... before exploding for 36 points on 1.80 PPP in the fourth quarter to pull away comfortably, behind the bench efforts of Nate Robinson and Glen Davis.
- In Game Five, Paul Pierce carried the Celtics to victory with a 12-for-21 shooting display comprised mostly of mid-range jumpers on isolations and screen and rolls, and the Celtics shot 56% from the field, compared to 39% for the Laker ... and they won by six points. In this game, the Lakers managed the rare feat of dominating the boards and still managing to get out-rebounded, due to the fact that the Celtics just didn't miss enough shots to give the Lakers an opportunity to grab a board.
- In Game Six, the Lakers once again pounded the Celtics on the glass, and rode strong offensive contributions from Ron Artest, Sasha Vujacic, Lamar Odom and Jordan Farmar, none of whom were having a particularly good series up to that point.
Are you confused yet? I know I am. Here's a short recap, in case you don't like bullets. Each team won a game on the other guys' home floor, and that victory was made possible by a standout performance from a player who has been otherwise terrible in the rest of the series. The Celtics have seen about two good games out of each of their Big Four, and the only player who has brought a decent level of consistency to the Lakers is Kobe Bryant, but he's shooting only 44% on the series. If the Celtics win tonight, nobody might be more deserving of the Finals MVP than Kobe, because nobody on the Celtics has performed well enough to stand out. And yet, if the Lakers win it tonight, and Pau Gasol throws another monster game together, there's an outside chance Kobe won't even win the award if his own team wins.
The concept of "anything can happen in Game Seven" is a cliche that has been pretty well worn out, but in this game, the cliche rings true. Why? Because anything already has happened. It's been happening for six straight games. You'd think, considering the number of times these teams have played each other, considering how well they know the other's game plan inside and out, that there would be some level of consistency at this point, but there isn't. Six games have been played, and the only games that looked even remotely similar to each other were Games One and Six. The rest have played out like results on a roulette wheel. You can bet on red or black (the teams) but if you hit the actual number (the way the game plays out) it's just dumb luck.
Which is why, no matter who you root for, if you're smart, this game is a nerve-wracking experience. While I don't expect a blowout in either direction, nothing can be taken off the table. My gut tells me that the Lakers have the edge, with the home-court advantage and with the unfortunate reality that the Celtics have old, foul-prone, back-aching Rasheed Wallace as the only player to hold down the center position effectively. The factors involved do seem to be pointing in the direction of the purple and gold. Then again, whenever that has been thought to be the case is always the exact moment the pendulum swings back in the other direction. The only momentum that exists in this series is that of the TV ratings. Those just keep getting better.
With so many variants, so many wide ranges of possible performance from so many guys, this has to be the most intriguing game the NBA has seen in some time. Yes, it's the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers. Yes, there are massive storylines regarding the legacies of some of the best players and coaches of this generation. Yes, it's the next chapter in the greatest rivalry in basketball, and quite possibly in all of sport. But what makes this game special, what has made this series epic despite lacking a single epic game, is that no one has a clue what's going to happen next. It has played out like a good season of 24. The only thing you know for sure is that another surprise is lurking around the corner. The possibilities of Game Seven are not limited by anything we know. There are no rules.
The only thing left to do now is free your mind, open up to the myriad of possibilities that don't currently seem possible, and see how it ends. Our basketball realities will be defined in the next 12 hours. Until then, we are all just tumbling down the rabbit hole. Enjoy the ride.