Game Seven. Game Heaven. Game Hell.
The most important three hours in Lakers' history arrive Thursday night on the happy feet of hope beset by the nagging twinges of doom.
"Life or death," said Kobe Bryant, pausing. "But not that extreme."
He had it right the first time.
If the Lakers defeat the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the NBA Finals at Staples Center, their second consecutive championship would give real life to the possibility that this group could stay together long enough to win two more and certify the Lakers as the greatest franchise in NBA history.
If they lose, that hope dies here.
If the Lakers win, Phil Jackson is paid, Derek Fisher is remembered, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest are forgiven, and everyone returns with a legitimate shot to win it again for each of the remaining four years on the core group's contracts.
If they lose, everyone runs for cover, and not everyone finds it.
"Mmmm, yeah, maybe there would be some changes," said Odom on Wednesday, raising his eyebrows. "It's what we live with around here. It's what you expect. It's what makes us."
If the Lakers win, it would be their 16th championship, one short of Boston's record 17 titles. It would be Bryant's fifth ring, one short of Michael Jordan. It would bring the Lakers to within two years of one of the greatest climaxes in sports history, and owner Jerry Buss would never do anything to ruin a Hollywood ending.
If they lose, the place could look like a slasher flick.
You remember 2004, right? It was the last time the Lakers lost in a Finals in which they had home-court advantage and were heavily favored, and talk about ugly.
When it ended, the Lakers ended. Even as the confetti fell from the Auburn Hills Palace ceiling after the Detroit Pistons' 100-87 victory in Game 5, the Lakers were already disbanding.
Gary Payton was gone immediately. Karl Malone was gone immediately. Rick Fox was gone immediately. It was obvious that Coach Phil Jackson would be gone shortly. It was clear that Fisher wouldn't be sticking around much longer. Even Shaquille O'Neal was complaining enough to make you wonder if he too would soon be history.
I still remember the glazed eyes of then-Times' beat reporter Tim Brown as he walked out of the smoldering wreckage of a Lakers locker room that night.
"There's nobody left," he said.
By the end of the summer, they were all officially gone, much of an entire team gutted two years after winning an NBA title. Sure, Buss did some of it to appease Bryant, but he also did it to fulfill a mission statement that has made him the best owner in league history.
If you can't win the championships you are supposed to win, we'll find somebody who can.
"This year is no different than any year in Lakerland, ever," said Fisher. "The expectation is that you will win it all. You don't see division or conference banners hanging from the ceiling. It's all about a championship."
And when it's not?
"Well, yeah, I can see a few similarities between 2004 and now," he said, wincing.
It starts with Jackson, who six years ago was shooed away by Buss because the owner felt he didn't need to have the highest-paid coach to finish second. This time, with Jackson already facing a pay cut by the economy-bruised Buss family, a loss in Game 7 on his home floor to the Boston Celtics would probably lessen his offer by enough to force him away again.
The losses might continue to Fisher, whose leadership and playoff heroics are seen as wonderful when they result in a ring, but decorative when they don't. He's not getting younger, and a loss here would probably force him to age elsewhere.
The changes would then move to Odom and Artest. Both would be the fall guys for the failure. One of them could be sent packing in its wake.
This time, when everyone goes, the Lakers' winning could stay gone. There's no Jackson to return to rescue them. There's no Gasol waiting out there to revive them. The Buss family might eventually sell their controlling portion of the team to win-at-no-cost Phil Anschutz. The franchise could revert to the dirty dozen years between the 1988 title and the 2000 crown, and its brush with history might never be this close again.
Then there's Kobe. If the Lakers win, everyone remains to continue their dynastic quest under his great leadership. If the Lakers lose, nothing takes a bigger hit than that leadership, and it's hard to see Bryant's reputation ever fully recovering.
It's one thing to win an NBA title over novice Orlando, but it's quite another to do it against the veteran Celtics, and if the Lakers won't follow Bryant through this kind of fire, then can he ever lead them again?
"I've said the whole season, you don't win a championship, it's a failure," said Bryant, understating it again.
Game Seven. Raise your voice. Hold your breath.
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