LOS ANGELES -- This is the way it was supposed to be. This is the way we dreamed it would be. And luckily for us, this is the way it will be: Lakers, Celtics, Game 7, NBA Finals.
This is the kind of moment sports clichés -- do-or-die, must-win, no tomorrow, backs against the wall -- were created for, and the kind of game you'll talk about decades later no matter the outcome.
As much as this Lakers team doesn't want to think about history and its place in it, this is the Lakers' moment to shape their destinies and legacies. History's memory of this team will be determined by a single game. Win it and the Lakers avenge the heartbreak of two years ago, cement their place as the best team of this era, and become the first squad to repeat as NBA champions in eight years. Lose it and they fall in line with past Lakers bridesmaids who have lost to the Celtics, as recently as 2008 and as far back as 1962.
Kobe Bryant, who actually knows more about the history of the game than most of his counterparts, acted Tuesday night as if he didn't care about the moment he was part of, sitting in front of the media after the Lakers' surprisingly easy 89-67 win over the Celtics in Game 6 and looking seriously unimpressed.
"It's no different to me," he said of playing in Game 7 against the Celtics. "I don't mean to be a buzz kill, but it's not. I know what's at stake but I'm not tripping. It's a game we've got to win, simple as that. I'm not going crazy over it."
Maybe it's best Bryant takes that approach, as opposed to admitting his legacy hangs in the balance Thursday night. The outcome of Game 7 will not make or break Bryant's career (he has four championship rings), but it will affect how we ultimately view him. If we watch Bryant walk off the court as a loser in the NBA Finals for the third time in his career, this time on his home floor, to the Celtics in Game 7, it will permanently remove him from any debates about whether he is in the Michael Jordan conversation as the greatest player of all time, and forever join him to the frustrations suffered by the man Bryant believes is the greatest Laker ever, Jerry West, who lost to the Celtics six times in the NBA Finals.
If he wins his fifth championship, tying him with Magic Johnson and leaving him one shy of Jordan's six, while beating the Celtics in Game 7 (Jordan never played in an NBA Finals Game 7), Bryant would move one step closer to being recognized as the best player of his generation and possibly of all time.
Only 16 previous NBA Finals have gone to a decisive Game 7 and it has happened only three times since the Lakers and Celtics went the distance in 1984. This year's series will be the fifth Lakers-Celtics Finals to go seven games; in the previous four instances the Celtics have beaten the Lakers by an average of just 4 points. Of the nine Celtics victories over the Lakers in the NBA Finals, the narrow Game 7 defeats hurt most of all, of course.
The 2010 Lakers not only find themselves in heady historical company, but they also bring high personal stakes to the drama of Game 7. This is the first NBA Finals Game 7 for veteran players like Bryant and Derek Fisher, who have played in 393 combined playoff games but have never laced up for a Game 7 in the Finals. Neither has Phil Jackson, who has coached in 322 postseason games and won 10 championships.
"It's a really high-tension situation," said Jackson. "Players have come down to putting a lot on the line at this particular point. A lot of times it's not about the coaching at that point. They've already got it in them. It's about who comes out and provides the energy on the floor and plays the kind of game and dictates the kind of game they want to dictate."
After the game Jackson showed off his drawing skills on the Lakers' dry-erase board, writing "1 To ..." next to a drawing of a ring. As he looked at the board, Lakers forward Luke Walton winced as if he didn't know what the circle with the diamond on top meant.
"I don't know what that picture is," Walton said. "Phil drew that. It looks like a bomb or something."
Walton then laughed as he put on his championship ring from last year and said, "That's what we bring up every day. After every practice and shootaround and before every game we say, '1, 2, 3 ring.' After all these games we only have one to go so we don't need any more motivation."
That may be so, but this is no generic quest. The motivation to defeat the Celtics, and to do it in Game 7, is unique.
The Lakers might not understand or want to admit it now, but they will understand years from now, when they're reminiscing about these games or sharing their moments with past Lakers greats who have been a part of this rivalry, that Thursday night is a singular moment, a memory that rises above all others.
The truth is the Lakers aren't just playing for themselves, they're playing for every Lakers team that ever watched the Celtics win the championship and celebrate at their expense in every home they've ever known, whether it's the Minneapolis Auditorium, the Los Angeles Memorial Arena or the Fabulous Forum. The Lakers don't want to add the Staples Center to that list.
"It's historic, it's fun to be a part of this," Lakers forward Lamar Odom said. "We play for pride and the players who came before us. When you talk about pride you talk about this organization. I don't want to lose anything to those guys whether it's a game of checkers or video games. I want to beat them."
Memo to Odom: This ain't checkers.
Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ArashMarkazi.