LOS ANGELES -- Out of Phil Jackson's mouth there comfortably flowed a steady stream of words about such high concepts as ranking greatness and places in history. Wrapped around his left hand was a cord with a dangling whistle. Somewhere in between the lofty goals and that basic tool of coaching lies the essence of this Game 7 in the latest iteration of Lakers versus Celtics, a contest with grandiose overtones that will be decided by mundane details.
"You may be moving at a faster rate, you may be playing at a quicker elevation, spirit, etcetera," Jackson said. "But if you're not going to be able to do the most basic things -- if you come out of your skin, in other words -- if you're out of character, things are going to happen awry. They're not going to go right for you. So you have to stay in character. Even though it's not just a game. It's a different type of game."
"Historic" was the word Lamar Odom used when asked to describe this game, a wise choice given all the success and legendary players stored in each franchise's archives and the additional entries that will follow after the NBA Finals are decided Thursday. By now the stakes are well-chronicled. It will be back-to-back championships for the Lakers (and a remarkable fourth time for Jackson to follow an initial championship with at least one more) or a return to glory for an aging group of Celtics that has yet to lose a playoff series with its three biggest stars in the lineup. If the Celtics win, coach Doc Rivers can become the 12th coach with multiple championships, and none of the current stars would have to explain their solitary ring when they gather at reunions of all the previous green-jerseyed greats for whom championships were always plural. For the Lakers, it's a chance for Jackson to extend his coaching record to an 11th championship and for Kobe Bryant to continue his ascent up the ring tally of the greats with his fifth.
The subplots are so predictable at this point that a journalist who arrived late to Jackson's Wednesday media session inquired, "Did they ask all the legacy questions yet?" Yes, they were pretty much all covered, and Jackson was at ease for all of it.
When told that Game 6 moved him past former hockey coach Scotty Bowman for the most playoff coaching wins in the four major North American pro sports, Jackson said it "won't be any significant thing" that he would remember, but he did wonder about the total number. Told he was at 224, he nodded and said, "That's a lot of wins."
The smaller yet more significant number is the 10 championships, a figure he said didn't really sink in until his kids placed a big yellow cap with the Roman numeral X on his head following the Lakers' Finals victory in Orlando last year and he processed "the remarkable ability to have had this amount of opportunities, which I'm very grateful for."
He's been just as candid throughout the playoffs in talking about his uncertain job status for next season. There's still the possibility that this could be his final game coaching the Lakers -- or any NBA team. Lakers owner Jerry Buss hasn't committed to bringing Jackson back at his current $12 million salary, although it's always possible that winning could persuade him to keep the group intact. Thus, this Game 7 could be both coronation and audition.
"I can't speak for that part of it," Jackson said later in the hallway.
As for the difference a win or loss could make on his thought process, "I've said, 'If we win, it'd be hard not to come back and try to do it again.' Then my kids said, 'You don't have to say that, because you've been to the Finals three times in a row.' I'm just reserving the emotional moment to happen and then take some time to reflect."
This could also be the last gathering of the Celtics' Big Three, the hastily assembled, instantly successful combination of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen that has been to the Finals twice in their three seasons together. Allen is a free agent, and Rivers has not denied reports that he is considering walking away from the final year of his contract to spend more time with his family.
"There's a lot of variables," Rivers said. "But I think we should always view it that way. You can never take for granted a season, a game and especially a Game 7 of the Finals."
You also can't assume that just because the seventh is the ultimate game it will extract greatness from all the players. Inevitably the moment will be too big for some. The two most recent seventh games, between the Spurs and Pistons in 2005 and Knicks and Rockets in 1994, produced scores of 81-74 and 90-84, respectively. The biggest stars had the most points for the winning teams, but they were inefficient in doing so. It took Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon 25 shots to get his 25 points in 1994, and San Antonio's Tim Duncan required 27 shots for his 25 points in 2005. It was the secondary players who emerged with the high-efficiency games. The combustible Vernon Maxwell made 6-of-11 shots to get 21 points for the Rockets and Manu Ginobili went 8-of-13 and scored 23 for the Spurs.
In 1988, it was James Worthy who had a triple-double for the Lakers in Game 7 against the Pistons. Worthy is a Hall of Famer, but he wouldn't be the first choice on a team with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The implications? The Lakers shouldn't count on Bryant's carrying them to glory in this Game 7, especially against a Celtics defense that's designed to limit Kobe's impact to him and him alone, like the flood-containment compartments on a submarine.
"In terms of playing with a guy like that, it's important to realize that you can't just show up [Thursday], bring your jersey and hand it to him and say, 'You've got to wear mine too,'" Derek Fisher said. "Everybody has to come and pull their weight and not be a spectator, basically, is what Phil has really been talking to us about. Go out there and be aggressive and assertive and embrace this moment."
The games in this series haven't been decided by which big names have had the biggest games; it's been about how many rebounds, loose balls and blocked shots the secondary players have accumulated.
The Celtics had their most impressive victory of this series when reserves Glen Davis and Nate Robinson led the way in Game 4. Davis has gone scoreless since, so can he really be expected to deliver in Game 7? He might have to. Or the task could fall to Rasheed Wallace, who is expected to replace the injured Kendrick Perkins in the starting lineup.
Wallace is coming off an 0-for-7 Game 6. But Game 7s are so unpredictable that Wallace just might hit six 3-pointers. Don't forget, he can be his unrestrained emotional self now that he no longer has to worry about his seventh technical foul of the playoffs leading to an automatic suspension in the next game.
There is no next game. And there's no previous game like a Finals Game 7, says Wallace, the only player on both teams who has played a Game 7 in both the conference finals (with the 2000 Trail Blazers and 2005/2007 Pistons) and NBA Finals (2005 Pistons).
"Conference finals, that's just like, you're almost at the top of the steps," Wallace said. "You go ahead and win that Game 7 in the conference finals, then you know you're at that next step. But here, I mean, it's either you're going to take that step to be the champion or you're going to trip up the steps and fall short."
Wallace had a great five-minute session with the media, going from illuminating to entertaining -- except those who arrived late asked questions about topics he'd already addressed.
"I already talked about that, bud," he told someone who asked him about coping with Perkins' absence.
Well, we just got here.
"Ain't my fault."
He wasn't more helpful even for the original post-Perkins query at the start of his chat.
"We're definitely going to miss him," Wallace said. "That's a stupid question."
When he heard questions he thought made sense, he gave great answers. The biggest asset of Game 7 experience, he said, was "the know-how -- there's certain times when you know you can shoot crazy shots and certain times you know when you can't."
Yes, in all likelihood Game 7 won't be determined by the greatness of Bryant or the intensity of Garnett or the wisdom of Jackson or the tactics and leadership of Rivers. It will be about the discretion of Wallace, or the effort of Odom, even if they won't be the ones basking in the most glory.
We've spent a whole season -- entire careers, even -- building toward this game. And whenever structures are finished, we always end up celebrating the architects, not the workers who hammered and welded.
The grunt work will determine the final 48 minutes of the NBA Finals. The outcome will follow the principal names as effortlessly as a shadow.