Before he was the Memphis Grizzlies coach, back when he was a 76er point guard, Lionel Hollins always was restless the night before a Game 7.
“You think through every scenario,” Hollins said. “You don't get any sleep. As a player, you want to go out and be aggressive. But you don't want to do anything stupid, put your team in a hole.”
Welcome to the NBA's most stressful situation. Veteran players talk about the increased intensity of playoff basketball. They do so with a bounce in their voice.
But when those same veterans talk about the increased tension of Game 7s, they do so in quiet, almost reverent tones, as if not tempting the gods to place them on such a plank.
No such luck for the Thunder and Grizzlies, who Sunday in the Oklahoma City Arena play Game 7 of their rousing Western Conference semifinal.
Winner goes to Dallas for the Western Conference Finals. Loser packs up the jerseys until sometime after the lockout ends.
“Those Game 7s are the official grit and grind,” said Memphis' Tony Allen, who played in four such games with the Celtics. “It's win or go home at that point.”
Said Thunder center Nazr Mohammed, “Game 7 is when you have that do or die. You get the best of the best. Some guys can't handle that situation.”
Think about it. Some of the great Game 7s in NBA history are remembered as much for failure as for success.
Portland blowing a 15-point fourth quarter lead against the Lakers in the 2000 Western Conference Finals. Hal Greer's inbounds turnover in the 1965 East finals, which Celtic announcer Johnny Most immortalized as “Havlicek stole the ball.” Wilt Chamberlain.
Hollins likens it to the threats we live with every day. Something bad could happen at any time, yet we don't worry about it until terror strikes.
“Same way with a Game 7,” Hollins said. “If you know it could be your last game, you start worrying about it.”
The Thunder and Grizzlies are woefully shy of Game 7 experience. Each team has four players that have appeared in a Game 7, but only two per franchise has played meaningful minutes.
The Thunder's Daequan Cook, who played 17-plus minutes for the Heat in a 2009 Game 7 against Atlanta, agreed that players approach such an ultimate game differently.
“No question,” Cook said. “Think about it. It's Game 7. Both teams have worked to get even in the series. It becomes a brawl every possession.
“You want to win. You want to do everything you can to give yourself a chance to win.
Every possession, guys don't want to make mistakes.”
This is the first Game 7 in the Grizzlies' 16-year history. It's the first Game 7 in Oklahoma City's five-year NBA history.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks played in one Game 7, 18 years ago as a Rockets backup point guard. He played 12 minutes in Houston's 103-100 loss at Seattle.
Brooks downplays Game 7 pressure.
“There's not a lot of Game 7s,” said Brooks, who will coach in the 107th in NBA history. “But the games are still played 48 minutes. You can't worry about the pressure of the game.
“You still have to play your game. The best teams can handle that. And throughout the playoffs, you have the pressure of not making mistakes that could cost your team.”
Yes. But that pressure is magnified in Game 7. The stakes and the pressure are the same for both teams. And reputations are formed.
Consider the fates of Chamberlain and Bill Russell. Russell won 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons with the Celtics. And despite Chamberlain winning two NBA titles, and setting scoring and rebounding records that stand today and might stand forever, he's labeled as the big man who couldn't win.
It's a charge that largely boils down to four Game 7s against Russell.
Chamberlain, playing with the Warriors, 76ers or Lakers, went 0-4 in Game 7s against Russell.
In the 1962 Eastern Conference Finals, Chamberlain's three-point play in the final seconds tied the game. But with two seconds left, Boston's Sam Jones arched a jumper just over Chamberlain's reach to give the Celtics a 109-107 victory.
In the 1965 East finals, Chamberlain scored 30 points, and his 76ers got the ball back, down one, in the final seconds, under the Boston basket. But the Celtics' John Havlicek swiped the inbounds pass — “Havlicek stole the ball!” — and Boston won 110-109.
By 1968, Chamberlain finally had an NBA title, but Russell still had the champion mantle, and Chamberlain was beginning to play to his inferior status. In the 1968 East finals, Chamberlain seemed to go in a self-imposed shell. In the second half, he scored just two points and took only one shot. Boston won 100-96.
And in the 1969 NBA Finals, Chamberlain sat out the final 6:19 of the game with an ankle injury. The Lakers, down 17 points, rallied to make a game of it, but even though Chamberlain declared his readiness to return, Laker coach Butch Van breda Kolff kept his center on the bench. Boston won 108-106.
Four games, all victories for Russell, decided by a total of nine points.
Give Chamberlain two of those victories, and it's easy to see how NBA legacies could be different. Russell still would be a great champion. But Chamberlain would almost surely have had four titles and a far better status.
Instead, he's the guy who in Game 7 showdowns against his arch rival twice failed with valiant efforts, then seemed to wilt at his last two chances.
Their legacy is set.
Chamberlain's record in Game Sevens: 4-5.
Russell's record in Game Sevens: 10-0.
Game 7 is a place to shine. Larry Bird, John Havlicek, Sam Jones. Willis Reed and Walt Frazier. Dirk Nowitzki, whose 3-point play in the final seconds against San Antonio forced overtime in the 2006 West semifinals and ignited the Mavericks to the NBA Finals.
Should Kevin Durant or Zach Randolph or Russell Westbrook produce Sunday, their feats will become the stuff of legend not just in the hamlets of Oklahoma City and Memphis, but everywhere that values pro basketball.
Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay, broadcasting some of this series for ESPN radio, said, “your best players, your really good players, will have their best game."
Ramsay spanned the Boston eras of Russell and Bird. Now he's analyzing the likes of Durant and Nowitzki.
Such players, Ramsay said, are “not thinking about making a name. They're thinking about winning or losing. In the process, you make a name for yourself.
“I've been around great players. The great ones, they play the same way. They don't let the big moment get in their way. They make the big moment happen.”
So what will it be Sunday? A great player making a big moment happen, or everyone just trying not to do something stupid.
The first Game 7 in Oklahoma City history awaits.