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For NBA and NHL, This Year’s Championships Are Games to Watch and Remember

June 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The NHL and NBA seasons have led up to dramatic and exciting endings. NPR's Mike Pesca joins Jeffrey Brown from Miami to discuss how the last-second shots and overtime goals have made 2013 NBA finals and the Stanley Cup games major sports moments to remember.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next: Sometimes, sports reaches beyond its regular base of fans. And this has been one of those weeks filled with drama.

ERIK SPOELSTRA, Miami Heat Head Coach: They are the best two words in team sports: Game Seven.

JEFFREY BROWN: Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra set the stage, after his team rallied to beat the San Antonio Spurs in overtime Tuesday night. Game six became an instant classic in a title series that features a raft of future Hall of Famers, including Miami star LeBron James.

LEBRON JAMES, Miami Heat: Oh, it’s by far the best game I have ever been a part of. To be a part of something like this is something you will never be able to recreate once you’re done playing the game, and I’m blessed to be a part of something like this.

JEFFREY BROWN: James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh make up Miami’s big three. A victory tonight would mean back-to-back titles for their franchise.

For San Antonio, veteran Tim Duncan leads a Spurs team that has never lost in the finals. A win Thursday would garner him a fifth title.

TIM DUNCAN, San Antonio Spurs: We know what’s at stake. We know what we have to do. We know the opportunity we let slip through our fingers. It’s all about just — just winning the title. It’s not about a situation or what’s led up to it.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, another epic playoff battle is being waged on the ice between two of the National Hockey League’s original six teams. The Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins are deadlocked at two games apiece in the Stanley Cup final. Three of the four games have gone to overtime, including last night’s thriller, a 6-to-5 win for Chicago. The Blackhawks host game five on Saturday night.

Mike Pesca of NPR has been trying to keep up with all this. Tonight, he joins us from, where else, Miami, for game seven of the NBA Finals.

And, Mike, start right there. You are, of course, by definition, excited at this time of year, but what makes this one stand out for the rest of us?

MIKE PESCA, National Public Radio: No, no, no. Excited? I just keep my professional distance and note the winners and losers.

Are you kidding? I’m extremely excited. When the Heat were trailing by 10 entering the fourth quarter and the mood was gloomy, I think I and everyone else in the arena was saying, well, let’s just put a fifth ring on Tim Duncan’s finger.

But there LeBron came back. He spurred the team on without a headband, three-point shots by Ray Allen. It was just an amazing, amazing game. And I really think this game seven is, all game sevens, by definition, very important, extremely important. You heard Erik Spoelstra, the Heat coach, there saying it’s the greatest word in sports or the greatest phrase.

I think Gregg Popovich would disagree since he had the game six all but won. But it really is the most anticipated game I think since 1984 in one of those Celtics vs. Lakers series. And this just couldn’t be bigger. The TV ratings are big. And everyone is fascinated and captivated by LeBron James. Everyone has an opinion on that guy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, there’s LeBron James and then there’s this other team, the Spurs, with their own very veteran team that, as you just described, let things fall — fall away at the end.

Now, one question is, are they — how do they come back after something like that?

MIKE PESCA: Well, both teams are physically drained, equally physically drained.

And after his press conference Tuesday, LeBron James had a lot of trouble even getting up out of his seat. He did take the time to note after his press conference yesterday he got up pretty spryly and said, see how easy that was? It’s the emotional impact that a lot of people are focusing on.

I think there is no team better suited to deal with weathering that storm than the San Antonio Spurs, from their best player, Tim Duncan, who is ever stoic, but really doesn’t seem to let emotions affect him or take him out of the game, to their coach, Gregg Popovich, probably the greatest tactician in the NBA, probably the greatest motivator in the NBA.

They just have veterans. And even though fans are perhaps foisting their own emotion on the team, the fans who are devastated are saying, how are the Spurs going to get back there from an emotional level? I think the Spurs are professionals, and the emotions I don’t think are going to be the thing that makes the game turn one way or another.

JEFFREY BROWN: We talked about this last game, where it went into overtime, it was so close. Before that, they took turns sort of killing each other, and it was interesting to watch the team rebound.

These are not only great teams, but they’re smart teams. They learn how to adjust.

MIKE PESCA: Yes, exactly. It’s part of the game.

Now, I think for the Heat, it’s been too much a part of their game, rebounding or zigzagging, because they have alternated between wins and losses 13 games in a row. If they were to win tonight, that will be their first two games in a row having won since the Indiana series.

The last time they won two games in a row was May 20. But no one is saying, oh, it will be hard for the Heat to concentrate or win two in a row, because they have game seven on their home court. In the last five game sevens, the home team has won in the finals.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you mentioned LeBron James, of course, as the focus of — always the focus, really, whether loved or hated, villain or hero, again tonight, right?

MIKE PESCA: Yes.

And I notice that no one said, hey, Tim Duncan only had five points in the second half and zero points in overtime. No one said, what will this do to Tim Duncan’s legacy? And I think that is fair. I think Tim Duncan’s legacy is in place. Maybe LeBron James’ is, too.

We like to heap all amount of scorn on LeBron James. He’s the focal point of their team. As he goes, the team goes. But the thing is, he usually goes exceptionally well and then, by the end of the game, he puts up triple doubles and statistics and fantastic plays that has everyone forgetting — maybe everyone forgetting — that day when he said, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach.”

Look, a win today will mean three trips to the finals since he’s been a member of the Heat, two championships. Who could say anything about that? Well, the answer is everyone who has a sports column next year the moment LeBron James goes down in a series.

But, still, he’s played really well, though you have to say, if the Heat are to win tonight, he will have to play well again.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, now, just in our last minute, I know this is going to be hard, Mike, but if I can take you — take your mind off basketball in Miami and to the ice, because the interesting story there is that the season that started so — about as badly as it possibly could, because it didn’t start, right, may end …

MIKE PESCA: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … is ending with a very — in a very compelling fashion that shows the sport maybe at its best.

MIKE PESCA: Right.

And 48-game season because of the work stoppage made for — perhaps every regular season game a bit more meaningful, but the teams didn’t all play each other. The Western Conference didn’t play the Eastern Conference. So, the Blackhawks were the best team in the West. Pittsburgh was actually the best team in the East, but Boston was really, really good.

These — if it goes seven, these seven games in the NHL finals or however many it will be, the first chance the West is facing the East. And it’s been great. Three of the four have gone to overtime. We finally saw an offensive explosion last night. The goaltending of Boston’s Tuukka Rask has been exceptional.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the sport of hockey and the sport of basketball both enjoy some dramatic game seven climaxes during this season.

JEFFREY BROWN: And very briefly, Mike, also, I hadn’t realized, but these are two of the original teams, I mean, in hockey. They hadn’t played each other, these two original teams, in a long time.

MIKE PESCA: Yes.

And, you know, the Rangers, the Maple Leafs, the Canadiens and — who am I missing? Who is the sixth member of the original six?

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you have Montreal in there?

MIKE PESCA: Yes, yes, yes. They — Detroit Red Wings. Sorry, Detroit.

Sure. And hockey is a sport with tons of tradition, and these two teams lately have been good. They went through pretty dark periods, both of them, for about 20 years. And, you know, whoever wins will give a really, really rabid fan base a bit of a gift, a huge gift with the Stanley Cup.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mike Pesca of NPR, enjoy tonight and the rest. Thanks so much.

MIKE PESCA: Sure.