HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — A champion will be crowned after the dust has settled on tonight’s winner-take-all Game 7 of The Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Legacies also are on the line for the coaches and main players on both sides. Heat star and four-time MVP LeBron James might have the most riding on the outcome of this game, but he’s certainly not the only one with a reputation to continue building.
Game 7 tips off Thursday night at 9 ET on ABC.
The Heat have plenty of numbers on their side, courtesy of home-court advantage. The home team is 14-3 in Games 7s in Finals history, the last road team to win was Washington over Seattle in 1978. They need whatever they can get after coming within seconds of not even making it to a Game 7, trailing by five points with 28 seconds to play in regulation of Game 6 before Ray Allen forced overtime with a clutch 3-pointer from the corner. The Heat are trying to repeat as champions, becoming the first team since the Los Angeles Lakers did it in 2009 and 2010. That 2010 title was secured with a Game 7 win over Allen and the Boston Celtics at Staples Center.
The Spurs are attempting to become just the fourth team to win a Finals Game 7 on the road. And they’ll have to shake off the stench of blowing their chance to capture the Larry O’Brien trophy in Game 6. The trophy was being wheeled out to the court for the championship ceremony as the Spurs fumbled away their lead in the final seconds. The Spurs are chasing title No. 5, for Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich, No. 4 for Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. So they are playing the legacy game, too.
The Heat haven’t won back-to-back games since the end of the conference semifinals and Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, while the Spurs haven’t lost back-to-back games with their Big 3 in the lineup since December. Something has to give tonight.
James, headband free, had to dig down in his deep reserves to find the energy to change the tempo in Game 6 and the put the Heat in a position to even have a chance to come back. So what does he have left for Game 7 with so much at stake? It needs to be a lot, because Dwyane Wade is operating on two busted knees and could be limited in Game 7 the way he was in Game 6. Chris Bosh came through with some clutch rebounds and a block at the end of Game 6, but he also has to play much better. The Heat need their Big 3 to show up again the way they did in Game 4, when they combined for 85 points, 30 rebounds, 10 steals, nine assists and five blocks.
Role players from each side have stepped up tremendously throughout the first six games of this series, but Game 7 is about the superstars showing up and assuming their designed roles. If the Spurs get another 30-point, 17-rebound effort out of Duncan and Parker shoots it better than he did in Game 6 and Ginobili cuts his turnovers in half and produces like he did in Game 5, the Spurs’ Big 3 will have done their part.
And that leaves the always important wild card position open for Allen or Mike Miller for the Heat and for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green for the Spurs. If any one of those guys goes off the grid and plays out of his mind in this setting, he could swing the momentum of this game in his team’s favor.
Popovich took a beating for his late-game rotations that did not include, for at least a stretch of the fourth quarter, Duncan and Parker on the floor with the Spurs trying to hold a lead. He didn’t take a timeout with seconds to play, allowing Ginobili to dribble the ball up the court at a critical time while Parker sat on the bench. And when the Spurs needed to rebound the ball in those final 28 seconds, Duncan was not on the floor as the Heat scrambled to tie the game. Not that he cares, but all eyes will be on him if things are tight down the stretch.
So much has been made about the Spurs’ mental and emotional recovery from Game 6, which was aided by a late-night, clear-the-air team dinner and the realization that they have one more chance to finish what they started in Game 6. But what about the emotional recovery for a Heat team that was floored by the reality that they were seconds away from watching a team celebrate a championship on their home floor for the second time in three years? They have to come back to earth after that game as well.
Finally, and perhaps most important, is what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra decides to do if Wade clearly doesn’t have the bounce and energy needed to impact the game in the way we’ve seen him do it earlier in this series? The Heat’s fourth-quarter rally in Game 6 came with James attacking the rim with sharpshooters Allen and Miller spreading the floor and the Spurs’ defense out. With Wade on the floor James doesn’t have the same room to operate and the Spurs can pack the lane. Spoelstra might have to make a choice between benching Wade and trying to do the impossible with him on the floor.
Xs and Os:
There will be plenty of opportunities for both coaches to tweak their teams in this game, but only once the action starts. After six games against each other, there are no surprises left. All of the punching and counterpunching we’ve seen — from the altered starting lineups and the insertion of certain role players at ideal times in the series — Game 7 should not come down to a modification from either Popovich or Spoelstra.
This is a game that the players will decide with their energy, effort and execution of the same game plans that have been in place since the start of Game 1.
The Spurs want to play at their pace, keep the Heat off-balance in transition and impose their will inside with Duncan and make sure Parker is attacking and his shooters are in place to take advantage of the inside-out game when the Spurs pick-and-roll game is in a groove.
The Heat want to play at their breakneck pace, with James and Wade in attack mode and the floor spread just enough to keep those driving lanes open and keep the Spurs guessing about where the next strike is coming from. And if Spoelstra is determined to stick with Wade and James on the floor together, one of them has to be prepared to play in the post to keep the floor spaced properly.
Allen scored just nine points in Game 6, but all nine of them came in the fourth quarter and overtime, the most critical times in the game for the Heat. Experienced in the clutch, he has more Game 7 minutes on his resume, by far, than anyone else in this game.
He’s been in the Spurs’ shoes before, trying to win a Game 7 on the road, and that experience will serve him and the Heat well in an environment that should be as wild as anything we’ve seen in the NBA this season.
“As a competitor you love it, because you know you have an opportunity and it’s up to you,” Allen said. “We have a chance in our building to make something great. All of our legacies are tied to this moment, this game. It’s something our kids will be able to talk about that they were a part of. Forever will remember these moments, so we want to not live and have any regrets.”
Whatever happened to…
Green went from the favorite to win Finals MVP before Game 6 to a complete non-factor by the end of Game 6. He shot just 1-for-7 from the floor and managed just three points in a game where, as Bosh promised, he did not see as many open looks as he had previously.
If the Spurs are moving the ball well to make space for their shooters, Green’s opportunities should increase dramatically in Game 7. And that should allow him to add to his already impressive Finals record for 3-pointers made.
Throw out the trends of this series and the teams alternating wins and neither one of them being able to come up with back-to-back exemplary performances, and strap yourself in for what should be a wild 48-minute (or more) ride with two heavyweight contenders swinging until one of them drops.
“You know what, it’s all about just winning the title. It’s not about situation or what has led up to it,” Duncan said. “It’s a great story for everybody else, but we’re here for one reason, one reason only: It’s to try to win this game. We have had a very good season thus far, and I think we just want to get to the game more than anything. We just want to see what happens and be able to leave everything out there.”