Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce: the deciders

There are too many reasons to pinpoint exactly why the NBA season has come down to a single game for only the third time in the last 16 years.

Among them are the Celtics' no-shows in Games 1 and 6 of the Finals, which could cost them a title. The Lakers' rise and fall in Game 4, a 96-89 loss, will not be forgotten, either, should the fourth-seeded Celtics win Game 7 in Los Angeles. Boston did that the last time these two teams played a deciding game there, also as the fourth-seeded East team in 1969.

Depending on Thursday night's outcome, certain individuals will either breathe a sigh of relief that his team picked him up when he was down, or carry for the summer and quite possibly the rest of his career the weight of not having it when the moments mattered most. Of course, we're talking about Ray Allen, who might already be holding his second championship trophy if he'd been just average in Game 3 (instead of shooting 0-for-13 from the field). We're also talking about Ron Artest, whose redemption in Game 6 just might be enough to erase his Games 1-5.

There is rightful talk about the newest addition to the sporting lexicon -- the "50-50 balls," those up-for-grabs loose balls the hungrier team gets -- and about the bench play that helped win Game 4 for the Celtics and Game 6 for the Lakers, who were quick and hungry on Tuesday night while the Celtics seemed to be standing still.

But Game 7 will be what basketball is: a superstar's game.

There are two in this Finals series: Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce. Whether it is directly by their star play or indirectly by facilitating the productivity of their teammates, by foul trouble or by an outright bad night, the NBA championship will be decided by which one of those two imposes his will longer and more effectively on the game.

When Pierce is directly involved (Game 5) and active (Game 2), the Celtics are a very difficult team to beat. In the 2008 Finals, Pierce was the difference. He played with fire and purpose, as if he knew it was time to prove his place as a worthy captain of the proudest franchise in the history of the league. Until then, all the losing years in Boston had diminished his light and place as a great player in the NBA. He lived in that uncomfortable zone also occupied by the Yankees' Don Mattingly, the captain as caretaker, visible as the best player of his team's unsuccessful era.

Given his moment two years ago, Pierce did not disappoint. He outplayed Bryant in the Finals during a memorable postseason run that also saw him stare down LeBron James and a resolute but wilting Detroit Pistons team that hasn't been the same since.

Victory for Pierce on Thursday, then, would complete one of the odder journeys in NBA history. Two titles in three years would give him as many as Dave Cowens and Jo Jo White won, and only one fewer than Bird, Parish and McHale.

And he needs a big Game 7, for if the Celtics lose the championship, the roots of the series loss might be found in the second quarter of Game 3, when Artest picked up his second foul, Lakers coach Phil Jackson inserted Luke Walton into the lineup to guard Pierce, and Pierce did nothing with the overwhelmingly favorable matchup.

Instead of Pierce exploiting Walton, the Lakers took a 17-point lead. An energized Pierce during that sequence might have prevented this series from even returning to Los Angeles by keeping Derek Fisher from burying the Celtics later in that game.

Bryant, meanwhile, was at his most masterful during the third quarter of Game 5, when he seemed determined to win the game alone. For anyone unconvinced of his commitment to victory, that quarter offers a solid rebuttal.

He is the best player in the NBA. My definition of that superlative is simple, and relevant: If you have one game to win, one quarter or one possession in which to win it, whom do you choose to make it happen? Your answer is the best player in the game. For me, it is Kobe Bryant.

Bryant is close to consecutive titles, and a fifth overall. He is dangerous whenever he is on the court, virtually unbeatable when his teammates are scoring.

He has a personal stake in this final beyond an addition to his trophy case. He does not want to be bettered twice in two Finals meetings by Pierce, nor go 0-and-2 in championship series against the Celtics. He does not want to be on the first Lakers team since the Chamberlain squad of 1969 to lose a Game 7 at home, or on the first Los Angeles team since the Jordan versus Magic Bulls-Lakers matchup in 1991 to lose the championship on its home court.

Often -- and this frequently is the case with James -- the superstar quotient is measured by the ancillary benefits of his presence: marketing, memorabilia, star power, commercials. But use whatever criteria you like across the four major team sports and their A-list of players, and the superstars have one thing in common: The overwhelming majority have either won or played for a championship.

In baseball, all of the top-level, greatest players -- with the exception of Ernie Banks and Ken Griffey Jr. -- played for a championship. Take your pick of baseball's best players from any top 10 list -- Ruth, Mays, Aaron, Williams, DiMaggio, Bonds, Musial, Mantle, Bench, Clemente, all three Robinsons, Pujols and, yes, Rodriguez -- and they've all played for the ring.

With pitchers, the point is even more pronounced. Show me your A-listers on the mound -- Koufax, Spahn, Clemens, Maddux, Carlton, Seaver, Gibson, Johnson, Mathewson, Ruth -- and I'll show you a guy who pitched in the World Series.

Of the top Hall of Fame pitchers who played an adequate amount of time in the World Series era, only three -- Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry and Ferguson Jenkins -- never pitched for a championship; and a strong argument can be made that none of them, despite their Hall of Fame credentials, is in the same category with Gibson, Koufax, Maddux or Clemens, anyway.

In football -- Dan Fouts excepted -- the superstar quarterback virtually always plays for the title at some point. Superstar running backs such as Sayers, Sanders and Simpson who never played with a great quarterback sometimes have had a more difficult time reaching a championship game; but nevertheless, the majority of the best have played for the best.

This, after all, is why they are called superstars. They are different from the rest. They move the needle.

And this is why the final chapter of the 2010 NBA season, and yet another Celtics-Lakers Finals, will come down to the best player in each jersey. Someone other than Bryant or Pierce may make the winning shot, but what those two do Thursday night over the course of 48 long championship minutes will be remembered nearly as long as the final score.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42