You normally don’t get sports days like this until the fall, but Saturday June 9 has the potential to be a hallmark day for sports fans. You can start it up in the early evening with the Belmont Stakes, and then in prime-time witness a potential Stanley Cup clinching win and Game 7 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals. Here at TheSportsNotebook we’ve already previewed the Belmont Stakes and while the Cup clinch is exciting, let’s face it—there’s still not a lot of suspense over who’s going to win it. Therefore, while I might be a biased Celtics fan, completely consumed by this game (I finished listening the songs “Nothing Else Matters” and “It’s All About Tonight” while researching the material you’re about to read), I think the case could be made to an objective fan that Boston-Miami for a spot in the NBA Finals is the event of the night. And since TheSportsNotebook prides itself on historical perspective, let’s take a look at the last seventeen times a Game 7 in the conference finals has gone down, and see where tonight’s game might ultimately fit in the pantheon of NBA playoff history…
TheSportsNotebook’s historical focus is from 1976 forward. Not because I disrespect what came before. But ’76 provides the unique intersection of games I can mostly recall (I was born in 1970) as well as the point when most sports leagues had some sort of significant change. In the NBA’s case, it was the merger with the ABA—actually a year later—that created the league as we know it today.
Consensus wisdom says that homecourt is decisive in a Game 7 and that’s a wisdom born of experience. Of the 16 decisive games that took place in the conference finals round, the home team is 13-4. But every series is different—in some case, the team had homecourt because they were simply a vastly superior team under any circumstances and they validated it with a decisive win. If you believe Miami fits that bill tonight—and if you do, you’re in line with Las Vegas, who has slotted the Heat as a (-8) favorite and if you want to bet them without the points, the moneyline is (-460)– here’s how similar games unfolded…
1988: The Los Angeles Lakers’ run to a second straight NBA title is recapped in more detail in our historical section, which recalls the special year that ’88 was for the city of Los Angeles in so many sports. The Lakers couldn’t beat the second-seeded Dallas Mavericks on the road, but they had no problem owning the old Forum. In the seventh game, Magic Johnson had 24 points and 11 assists, and James Worthy continued the breakout that would ultimately lead to him being Finals MVP and gaining the nickname “Big Game James”, as he hung 28 points/7 rebounds/7 assists on Dallas as the Lakers got control in the third quarter and ultimately won 117-102
1990: Detroit was now the team looking to win its second straight title and Michael Jordan’s Bulls were the ones standing in the way. But the Bulls weren’t mature enough to win. While Jordan had 31, Scottie Pippen had a complete meltdown, scoring only two points. And Detroit’s lockdown defense held Chicago to 31 percent shooting and the 93-74 final was never a game.
1993: Charles Barkley never got a ring, but when his Phoenix Suns played winner-take-all for the Finals against Seattle, Sir Charles was never better. He got 44 points/24 rebounds and his team got a comfortable lead in the third quarter, en route to a 123-110 win.
1995: Orlando buried Indiana 101-85. The Magic were too good inside, with a young Shaquille O’Neal and a veteran Horace Grant off the Bulls’ championship teams of 1991-93. Orlando’s 56 percent shooting can be attributed to Shaq and Grant combining for 18-for-24 and controlling the inside.
2001: I have a problem giving Philadelphia too much credit for their series win over Milwaukee, given that the league was determined to get Allan Iverson to the Finals and it took some inexcusable officiating to get the Sixers to this point. But they did win Game 7 in grand fashion, as Iverson scored 44. While Milwaukee’s Big Three—a group that included Ray Allen, along with Glen Robinson and Sam Cassell—scored 70 points, the combo of Iverson and Dikembe Mutombo’s ownership of the paint (23 points/19 rebounds) was too much. Philly owned the second and third quarters and the 108-91 final was anticlimactic.
Different then superiority, these are games where the underdog can make a credible case they were as good as the favorite, but were unable to close on the road. My guess is that while Las Vegas and probably a majority of fans are in the former category, everyone else outside of New England Nation (a group that includes the smattering of us who live outside Boston, but are wanna-bes), falls here, figuring the Celtics can keep it close, but ultimately come up short. Here’s games that fit this mold…
1979: For the only time in TheSportsNotebook era (I like to modestly claim the entire post-1976 period as my own), both conference finals went to Game 7 and both were thrillers. Seattle staved off Phoenix 114-110 thanks to Jack Sikma scoring 33 and hitting two free throws to clinch it. Then Washington got an epic performance from Bobby Dandridge, who first scored 35 points, then added the last two when he hit a 12-footer in the closing seconds to beat San Antonio 107-105 (the Spurs were then in the East).
1981: The Celtics won at home over the 76ers in one of the great battles in NBA history. I recapped the entire series over at Boston Sports Then & Now, a historical site I contribute to. The one-point win in the final completed a rally from 3-1 down and set the stage for the Bird Era in Boston.
1987: Six years later the Celtics were the aging vets trying to hold off the up-and-comers in search of their first title. It sounds like a familiar storyline as we get set for tonight, but before my brethren read too much into Boston’s 117-114 win here, remember that this Piston team had not yet been to the Finals, much less won it, and of course that Celtic team played Game 7 at home. Bird dropped 37 and Boston survived what was an breathless back-and-forth game to the wire.
1994: This Knicks-Pacers series to a similar sequence as this year’s Eastern Finals. After losing the first two on the road, Indiana won three straight, including a Game 5 in Madison Square Garden. But New York answered with a road win and then Patrick Ewing came up big in the finale, with a 24/22 night as the Knicks dominated the glass and overcame the superior shooting of Reggie Miller and the Pacers, who shot 50 percent from the floor, but second chances—in the series and on the glass—gave New York a 94-90 win a trip to the Finals in a memorable spring for the Big Apple.
1996: Utah’s Karl Malone takes heat for his ability in big games and it’s games like this in Seattle that give credence to his critics. The Mailman shot a mediocre 8-for-22, which might be forgivable, but he only had five rebounds, which is now, Meanwhile, Shawn Kemp posted a 26/14 and led the Sonics to a 90-86 win that gave them the West title.
1998: The Jordan era was coming to a close in Chicago and it was just a question of when. The Pacers were the opponent. If Scottie Pippen had to be called out for his no-show in 1990, he made up for it here, with a 17/12 game, as his rebounding keyed the decisive edge for the Bulls. Jordan had 28, Miller had 22 and the game is on the short list of great NBA games, as the Bulls held off the challenger 88-83.
2000: If you were looking for an apocalypse in Y2K look no further than right here. Portland was on the road in Los Angeles, led by 18 points in the fourth quarter and still lost. Pippen was now on the Blazers, but scored only 10 points. Unlike ten years earlier though, he was an aging player so he gets some slack. Rasheed Wallace scored 30 and outplayed Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, but the final 9-10 minutes of that game remain inexplicable. If you’re a conspiracy theorist, you’d have to assume Portland was not only in on it, but the lead orchestrator, because there was no funny officiating. Now for us Celtics fans tonight, it’s this historical precedent that we can look at—it shows that a team with the league’s clear best player, the two best players on the floor and homecourt advantage can still be pushed to the wall in Game 7. And I wouldn’t expect Boston to melt down the way Portland did.
Do any of these series have contours the ’12 Celtics might fit…
1976: Phoenix’s 94-86 win over heavily favored Golden State marked a huge upset, with Gar Heard scoring 21 points to lead the Suns. Rick Barry scored 20 for Golden State, although if you read The Book Of Basketball by Bill Simmons, the author says that Barry, angry at his teammates, essentially refused to shoot for a very extended period. Simmons is an NBA junkie, a knowledgeable historian of the game and watched the tape as part of his research, so I’m inclined to take his word for it. Tough to imagine LeBron or Wade pulling a stunt like that tonight.
1982: Oddly enough, one of the great inspirations the Celtics might have is a game they lost. The 76ers blew a chance to clinch at home for Game 6 and gave into the Garden for Game 7, marking the second straight year they could blow a 3-1 series lead. This is another series I recapped for Boston Sports Then & Now and the Sixers came up big, 120-106.
2002: I absolutely refuse to give this Laker win over Sacramento any credence, because even though, as an overtime game, it should fall into the pantheon of great NBA playoff games, the complete rob-job the officials gave the Kings in Game 6 put a pall over the series. Unlike the ’01 Sixers, who got some questionable officiating, the ’02 Lakers were completely gifted an elimination game in the fourth quarter.
2005: Believe it or not, this is the last time a Game 7 in the conference finals was played. And believe it or not it was in Miami, with names like Dwayne Wade and Udonis Haslem on the court. The opponent was Detroit. Wade shot poorly, going 7-for-20, while Rasheed Wallace played great in another Game 7, scoring 20 and Rip Hamilton knocked in 22, as the Pistons won 88-82. In a purely basketball sense, this has little relevance to tonight, as there was a guy named LeBron not on the floor for Miami. And as far as the fans’ memories, I doubt Miami fans bring the same kind of baggage that other cities’ do—which is the positive side of playing in a mostly bandwagon-driven city. Actually I’ll go a step further and say the average Heat fan doesn’t even remember the ’05 game, much less be tormented by it. But it does show Wade coming up small in a big spot and is an example that homecourt is not always automatic.
Where will Miami-Boston fit into the historical narrative? Will the experts be right and see it go on the board with games like ’88 Lakers-Mavs, as a favorite? Will it be like ’94, where a home team takes advantage of the new life it earned on the road in Game 6, but has to hold off a determined road team? Or will it be like ’05, with the road team winning in South Beach? Let’s tip it off and get started.