"Anything is posssibbbllllllllleeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!"
When Kevin Garnett screamed that line in his interview with Michele Tafoya at the conclusion of the 2008 NBA Finals, he was speaking to the meaning of the championship he and his teammates had just won. He was delivering an eggcorn of his sponsor adidas' slogan, "Impossible is nothing." And he was also inadvertently predicting the course of this 2010 rematch between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Entering tonight's Game Seven, here's what we know. One of these two teams will win the game and the series. Anything else is possible. Let's take a look at what to watch for during just the second deciding Game Seven of the NBA Finals in the last 16 years.
Rajon Rondo's performance
The Celtics' point guard might just be the single most important player on the court tonight. Aside from Game Four, when Nate Robinson was at the point during Boston's decisive fourth-quarter run, Rondo's play has fairly consistently tracked the results of his team as a whole during this series. This is true not only because Rondo's production is important in its own right but also because an active Rondo keeps Kobe Bryant engaged at the defensive end and does not allow him to roam.
Both Sebastian Pruiti at NBA Playbook and CelticsHub's Zach Lowe offered good thoughts on the problems the Lakers caused by backing even farther off Rondo in Game Six, as well as adjustments the Celtics can make in Game Seven.
As Pruiti notes, Rondo did a very poor job of making Bryant pay for his inattention on Tuesday night. To me, the biggest difference between the way Rondo has dealt with the Lakers' strategy in this series and his poor effort after the Lakers made the switch for Game Three of the 2008 Finals has been his ability to find ways to be a factor without shooting the jumper, whether by getting a critical tip-in as in the fourth quarter of Game Five or by cutting backdoor.
Lowe suggests Doc Rivers put Rondo in the pick-and-roll more frequently, not only with Kevin Garnett (or perhaps Glen Davis) to create midrange opportunities for the big man but also as a roll man with Paul Pierce to force Bryant to be involved defensively. That may be the key for Boston even more than Rondo scoring himself.
You wouldn't think that Boston, with an aging trio of stars and a pace of play in the league's bottom 10, would be so reliant on transition opportunities. Thanks to an active second unit, Rondo's individual heroics and a propensity for running off of turnovers, however, the Celtics have been sensational at times in the open court--and stagnant when those opportunities have dried up.
Fast-break points will be an interesting statistic to watch in Game Seven. The Lakers have had the advantage in fast-break points just twice in this series. Those games, One and Six, have been Los Angeles' one-sided victories. The two teams were close in terms of transition scoring in Game Three, the Lakers' other win, but Boston has had huge advantages in all three of its wins, outscoring the Lakers in fast-break points by an average of 13.3 to 3.0 in those games.
Considered from another perspective, the home team has averaged 11.2 fast-break points to the visitor's 6.3 in this series. Open-court dunks from Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar helped fire up the Staples Center crowd on Tuesday, but the energy provided by the home court also seems to be translating into getting out on the break, which could work to the Lakers' advantage in Game Seven.
Expect both coaches to remind their charges about the importance of getting back on defense and not committing live-ball turnovers while also exhorting them to push the basketball when possible.
The Matchup in the Middle
The Celtics made official on Wednesday that they will be without center Kendrick Perkins for the deciding game after he injured his right knee during Game Six. Perkins told reporters that the diagnosis, pending an MRI, is that he tore both the MCL and the PCL in the knee.
Word from Los Angeles is that Rasheed Wallace will start in place of Perkins. That makes sense because, while Davis has been the most effective backup big man for the Celtics, he struggles against the length the Lakers' starting frontcourt offers. Spotting his minutes against the frontcourt of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom (or Odom and Andrew Bynum) will help Davis.
Wallace is also now Boston's best defensive option against Gasol, whose passing from the post was key to the Lakers' victory on Tuesday. Having seen how valuable Gasol can be when they play inside-out, expect the Lakers to attack this matchup again early and often in Game Seven. Even though Bynum's size may cause problems for Kevin Garnett, the Celtics may have to leave Wallace on Gasol to take away the more critical offensive weapon.
It also remains to be seen just how much Bynum can offer in Game Seven. The pattern from the last two games has been Bynum starting well, but contributing less as the game continues and he stiffens up. In a Game Seven situation, it's not unthinkable that we could see the Gasol-Odom frontcourt play the entire second half if the game is close and Bynum is unable to stay loose. On the other side, Boston may need to stretch out Garnett, who has yet to play more than 36 minutes in this series and has topped 40 just once in the postseason (an overtime loss to Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals).
Perkins' absence isn't necessarily a killer for the Celtics, since both Davis and Wallace are superior options on offense. But Boston will miss Perkins' defense in the paint, and Game Six showed that simply having one fewer option hurt the Celtics when Davis and Wallace struggled on offense. Rivers would have gone back to Perkins in that situation had he been available. Instead, he had no choice but to roll with his reserves.
The Lakers' Role Players
The inside-outside attack featuring Gasol only works, of course, if the outside half of the equation is also keeping up its end of the bargain. Three makes by Ron Artest from beyond the arc and two from Sasha Vujacic helped the Lakers' offense, especially as they built an insurmountable lead during the first half. Artest, Vujacic and Derek Fisher are the three players who will get the most open looks thanks to the Celtics helping on Gasol in the post, and Los Angeles probably needs at least two of them to be hitting consistently in order to properly space the floor. Add Lamar Odom into this group and you've got four role players whose contributions will be crucial.
I'm not sure I want to make any predictions going into Game Seven. This series has defied analysis at nearly every turn. My pick before the series (Lakers in seven) is still very much alive, and in fact now the heavy favorite. Neil Paine's analysis on the Basketball-Reference.com Blog showed that the significant advantage the Lakers derive from home court is amplified slightly by the fact that the Lakers have outplayed Boston over the course of the series (outscoring the Celtics by 22 points). Still, the Lakers were buried prematurely after losing back-to-back games, and it would be a mistake to overcorrect and assume the Celtics are dead in the wake of their Game Six performance.
Ultimately, there may be just one thing you need to know going into Game Seven: "Anything is posssibbbllllllllleeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!"
Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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