June 03, 2010

Purple and Gold and Green and White and Black and Blue

Quick post in anticipation of the NBA Finals:

Boston-LA used to be a magical concept for every hoophead.  East versus West, Bird versus Magic, Old School versus Showtime.  Every time the Celtics and Lakers played in the 1980's it was an instant classic.  Then Magic and Bird left the stage, the Celtics suffered through some lean years, and then Shaq and Kobe started their own dynasty but their foils were the Trail Blazers, Kings, Pacers and Nets.  The Celtics were mismanaged and struck by multiple tragedies.  It was no contest, until starting in 2007 when Danny Ainge pinched Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, made some shrewd draft-day moves to get Rajon Rondo and Glenn Davis, kept faith in Kendrick Perkins and Doc Rivers, and eventually put together a TEAM that won the 2008 title, beating the Lakers in six games.

That Lakers team was built to win in its own right, having fleeced Pau Gasol from Memphis in mid-season.  But without Andrew Bynum in the finals, the Lakers were unable to withstand the Celtics' rebounding and defense, squandering a huge lead in Game 3 (or was it Game 2?) that sunk their mojo past the point of no return.  But the Lakers came right back last year and took the crown, and though they didn't exactly mow down the league like the 1983 Sixers (fo, fi and fo, to quote Moses Malone),  their supremacy was never truly in doubt.

And now we are treated to a true grudge match.  These teams are laying claim not just to the 2010 NBA Championship, but to a heightened legacy as multiple title winners.  Kobe Bryant is going after his fifth ring and second without Shaq.  Already one of the 20 greatest players of all time, he's trying to get even higher up the list.

The Celtics know they have less than a quarter tank of gas left.  They thought they were going to be one and done in 2008.  Six weeks ago they looked like a guaranteed second round exit against either Cleveland or Orlando; now they have knocked out both those teams and are in position to make history.

I'd say that this Celtics team is the closest thing to a Cinderella championship playoff team that we have in the NBA in a very long time.  In almost every season a number one or two seed wins the title.  When you think about recent playoff upsets, you think about the 2004 Pistons beating the Lakers, the 2006 Miami Heat knocking out the Pistons, or maybe the 2007 Cavaliers beating the Pistons to get to the Finals.  You could go back to the 1986 Rockets beating the Lakers or the 1994 Denver Nuggets beating the #1 seeded Seattle Supersonics, and then the Golden State Warriors pulling off an 8 over 1 upset in 2007.  But except for the Heat, none of those teams went on to win the title.  And that Heat team had Dwyane Wade and Shaq, both top 5 MVP candidates that year, and they played a Dallas Mavericks team that nobody will ever confuse with greatness.

Despite Boston's vast championship history, despite its 2008 title and deep, balanced talent level, if they win this year's finals I think they will go down as the biggest Cinderella in our NBA lifetime, at least since Magic and Bird entered the picture.  They will have beaten arguably the three best regular season teams in the league in order to do it.  They will win when nobody - not even their number one fan, Bill Simmons - expected them to make a run.  I think even most of the guys on the Celtics are pleasantly surprised.

All this depends on the team's health.  The Celtics can win because Andrew Bynum is limited, which gives the Celtics an advantage inside IF Perkins, Davis and Wallace are all healthy and available.  If Rondo is close to 100 percent, he will abuse Derek Fisher eventually.  Garnett can battle Gasol to a draw or even better.  Pierce and Artest will surely make headlines at some point but won't win or lose the series.  Kobe will be the best player on the floor, period.  But if the Celtics are healthy I think they will wear down the Lakers over the course of the series.  I think the Lakers bench has taken a step back during the playoffs and cannot match the Celtics bench for defensive intensity and focus.

Back in the day I was a rabid Lakers fan whenever these franchises met.  Now the Celtics and Lakers are probably the two teams I am least likely to root for.  This matchup is weighty and intense and awesome, but it's not Magical and it doesn't have me flying high like a Bird.  I'll appreciate the spectacle but my heart will go to the World Cup.  Celtics in 5, pending the health issues on both rosters.


Muggsy Mutombo said...

Cool piece. We agreed on Celtics in 5, although after last night, 6 may be a better bet.

Pistons-Lakers 04 is a bigger Cinderella story to me than if these Celtics go on to win a title. Whle it's true that the Celtics are a lower seed at 4 than the Pistons were that year at 3, everyone in the top 8 for Boston except Nate Robinson won a championship 2 years before. They're a team of mostly older guys, some of whom coasted thru the regular season while Garnett healed from knee surgery. Their record doesn't indicate their skill set or level of talent.

The 04 Pistons knocked off the 2 time defending easter confernce champion NJ Nets on the road in game 7. Then they went on to beat the #1 seed Indiana Pacers in 6.

No one on the Pistons had finals experience and they had a rookie, Tayshaun Prince, in their starting lineup. Their lineup had no all-stars and at that time, no one destined for the Hall. Even now, none of their guys are a lock for the hall.

That squad of defensive hustlers faced the Lakers who were hand picked for a championship. Kobe, Shaq, Malone & Payton. 4 Hall of famers. And the Pistons destroyed them in 5, including 3 straight blowouts in games 3-5.

If these Celtics win, it'll be very impressive considering how poorly they finished the regular season. But I don't think they saw themselves as one and done in 08, especially considering their dominance that year and the fact that all their players were locked into long term deals.

Gen R said...

You make a good argument for the 2004 Pistons Muggsy. I was in a rush to post before the game started and didn't get to flesh out a few points. For one thing, did you know that the Orlando Magic kept its opponent under 100 points in all 14 playoff games this year? That tells me the Celtics were playing some super-fierce defense of their own. And on the 2004 Pistons, I agree that of all the recent NBA Finals, the only times I was even remotely surprised by the outcome was 1995 (the Rockets were the defending champs but that Orlando team was stacked) and the 2004 Pistons. You're right that at that time the Lakers were clearly the more star-studded team, although within two years four Pistons were named to the all-star team, with Tayshaun almost making it a Fab Five. Still, after Richard Hamilton's bad foul at the end of Game 1 it looked like Detroit had squandered its chance, only to see them roar back and take advantage of a truly dysfunctional Lakers team. That was a series where chemistry went a long way. I agree that the 2004 Lakers were biggr favorites than the 2010 Lakers are, so in that respect the glass slipper goes to 2004 Detroit. However, I'd argue that the 2010 Celtics were bigger longshots to get to the Finals in the first place.

Nice that we made the same pick on the series. I intentionally did not read your blog before making my pick. Last night there were two statistics that told the story: Lakers won the rebounding war 42-31, and field goal percentage by about 49-43%. They played harder, got more inside baskets, and force the Celtics into a lot of bad possessions. Pierce had a very unimpactful 24 points. Bynum had a bigger impact than expected. Celtics better dig deep for Game 2. With the 2-3-2 format they cannot afford to go home down 2-0.