Game 7: Still turning grizzled veterans into nervous wrecks

Rasheed Wallace, left, and Ray Allen have each played in six Game 7s. The Celtics have a 20-6 all-time record in Game 7s.
Rasheed Wallace, left, and Ray Allen have each played in six Game 7s. The Celtics have a 20-6 all-time record in Game 7s. (Christian Petersen/getty Images)
By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, June 17, 2010

LOS ANGELES The mother, the father and two adult siblings carried their suitcases into the front door of the downtown hotel. A large black SUV sped away. An NBA player, a fairly big star actually, had just dropped off his immediate family members at the hotel even though he lived in a huge manse right there in the same town, 20 minutes away. No, there hadn't been any kind of dispute, and there were no bad feelings. The player had dumped his loved ones at the hotel because it was the eve of Game 7 and it was time to be alone, with video clips, thoughts, maybe a pizza delivery.

Game 7s are that big a deal. They require, for a great many players, that kind of solitude. I told Magic Johnson about seeing that scenario play out some years ago and he nodded knowingly. Not only did he understand, he remembers doing something very close to the same thing. Magic Johnson, the man with the sweetest disposition of any great athlete ever, said he remembers saying to his family members before one Game 7, "Get out! Can everybody just get out!" Wife and kids, I asked him. "Out!" Magic said. Visiting mom and dad? "Everybody out!" he said, voice rising to re-create the urgency of the situation.

Some players don't eat before Game 7s, some don't talk. No matter what they say they're all nerve-wracked, especially before Game 7 of the NBA Finals, which is what the Lakers and Celtics of all teams will play here Thursday night. Magic, though he's one of the five greatest players who ever lived and won five NBA championships, cannot get over the 1984 Game 7 loss to the Celtics. He blames himself to this day for the Lakers losing that series and knows exactly what players on these two teams are feeling going into Thursday night's game, series tied at 3, reputations on the line potentially for so many of them.

I've said in this space before and I'll say it again before getting to witness another that my two favorite words in sports are "Game Seven." The nervousness, the sense of desperation, the poise, the unraveling, the precision, the turnovers, the back-and-forth, the push-and-pull make it so irresistible. Anything that can bring already accomplished men to their knees like this, that can make a man tell the people dearest to him, "Here's a credit card; get a suite at the Four Seasons" is something that must stir the soul.

I can't help but wonder how differently the history of the NBA would read if Jerry West and Elgin Baylor had been able to win one of those four NBA Finals Game 7s from Bill Russell's Celtics. Or more recently, if Patrick Ewing's Knicks had been able to beat Hakeem Olajuwon's Rockets in Game 7 of the 1994 Finals, or if Mark Messier's Rangers had lost Game 7 and the Stanley Cup in the same year.

There are Game 7s in earlier rounds that could have changed the direction of the league, too, games that might have left Ewing, Charles Barkley or Reggie Miller with championship rings, games that made heroes in Boston and New York and Los Angeles. Suppose Portland holds on to a 17-point fourth-quarter lead here in Los Angeles in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals 10 years ago? Suppose the Sacramento Kings had beaten the Lakers two years later in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals? How would history remember Chris Webber?

You want some Game 7 history in general: ESPN's ace researcher, Lisa Brooks, reports that home teams are 84-21 all-time in NBA Game 7s, and 13-3 all-time in NBA Finals Game 7s, which is a winning percentage of 81.3. The Lakers and Celtics, amazingly, are playing in their fifth Finals Game 7, the highest total for any two teams in basketball, baseball or hockey.

The Celtics, in those Game 7s vs. the Lakers, are 4-0, including a win in Russell's final game. The Celtics, in fact, have two of the three road victories in Finals Game 7s, the other coming in 1974 (Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, Jo Jo White) in Milwaukee. The third Game 7 Finals Road Warrior? The Washington Bullets' lone NBA championship, in 1978, was won in Seattle.

If you think winning Game 6 is a big deal, think again. The Game 6 winner is only 34-71 all-time in NBA playoff history, and just 6-10 in the Finals, which might make Celtics fans a little more optimistic after losing Game 6 by 22 points. Of course, the 2-3-2 format that's been used the last 25 years means Game 6 and 7 are in the same city, which was not the case in the first 40-plus years.

Being a Celtic, as it turns out, might be the best indicator of what will happen in Game 7. Despite losing a Game 7 at home, no less, last season to Orlando in the second round and a Game 7, at home no less, five years ago to the Indiana Pacers in the first round, the Celtics know how to handle Game 7s better than anybody in sports. They have a 20-6 record in Game 7s all-time, six more Game 7 victories than the Lakers' 14. Ray Allen and Rasheed Wallace, both Celtics, have played in six of them.

Sixteen times, a sweet 16, the NBA Finals have gone seven full games. It used to happen fairly frequently . . . 10 times in 20 years from 1951 to 1970. But since Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and the Bullets won Game 7 in Seattle in 1978 the championship has been decided by a Game 7 only four times. One of those was Celtics-Lakers. Now here they are in a familiar situation for both franchises, both with future Hall of Famers, both with ailing centers, both full of players probably not answering the phone and hoping that family members, even spouses and children, will just leave them alone to prepare for basketball's ultimate game in complete solitude.

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