The NBA Finals begin Thursday night as the Boston Celtics face the Los Angeles Lakers.
While everyone and their sister gets misty-eyed thinking about the old 1980s rivalry between these two teams, what happened back when Larry Bird was sporting a delightful mustache and AC Green was still a virgin won't have any bearing on this series.
The Celtics will head to Game One at the new Boston Garden as underdogs. Every analyst on ESPN.com picked the Lakers to take the series and most don't think it will reach seven.
So how can the Celtics silence the doubters and defeat Kobe Bryant and the Lakers?
Here are five things they must do to hang that 17th Championship banner from the rafters.
1. Ray Allen must return to form.
Throughout the regular season, the Celtics won games with the Big Three of Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett leading the charge.
In the first two rounds of the playoffs, especially against Cleveland, they became the Big Two and the Case of Ray Allen's Missing Jump Shot. Allen shot an abysmal 33% from the field including only 17% from downtown. Those numbers simply won't get it done against the Lakers.
Luckily for the C's, Allen played well against Detroit, lifting his shooting percentages back to their regular season levels. His 29-point performance, including 5-6 from beyond the arc, in a critical Game Five win, shows that when Ray-Ray has his touch, the Celtics can score with the best of them.
The Celtics don't have a single player who can match Kobe Bryant's scoring ability.
Frankly, no team does.
That makes it all the more crucial that Garnett, Pierce, and Allen all perform at high levels throughout the series. If the Big Three can average around 60 to 70 points a game between them, that should be enough to offset Kobe.
2. Don't try to shut down Kobe Bryant.
Their is not a player in the Celtics starting lineup that can defend Kobe Bryant at the high level a player of his caliber demands. The only player on their roster that might be able to give Kobe a headache is James Posey, but bringing him in means taking Allen or Pierce out. The Celtic offense can't afford to do that.
So what do they do about defending the best player in the NBA?
Stick Allen on Kobe and concentrate on neutralizing the Lakers other scoring threats, mainly Pau Gasol.
If Allen can play even average defense on Bryant, holding him to around 30 points a game, the rest of the Celtic defense can do what it does best—frustrate ball handlers, get into passing lanes, and prevent easy lay-ups. After all, they did play the best team defense in the league during the regular season.
Defensive Player of the Year Kevin Garnett must force Gasol to rely on his outside shot. Rondo must prevent Derek Fisher from hitting too many threes. Perkins, along with help defense from Garnett, must protect the rim when Odom or Kobe takes it to the hole.
Even Kobe Bryant cannot beat this Celtics team single-handedly. If Boston can minimize the impact of his supporting cast, they should be able to keep the games below 100, which is where they like to play.
3. Rajon Rondo needs to hit his shots.
During the regular season, Rajon Rondo gave the Celtics everything they needed out of the point guard position. Like every young player, he was inconsistent at times, but overall he shot a high percentage (49%) and took care of the ball (5:2 assist to turnover ratio).
In the playoffs, he has been just as smart with the ball, as he raised his assists while keeping the turnovers to their regular-season levels. However, his shooting percentage fell to 41%, an average that will not get the job done against the Lakers.
If Allen finds the stroke he had during the regular season and against Detroit, Rondo should find himself with plenty of open looks. If he can knock his shots down, it will open up the defense for Pierce and Garnett to attack the rim. The Lakers defense would struggle to account for all these threats.
4. Keep the bench short.
The depth of the Celtic bench cannot match that of the Lakers, who have Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, and Ronny Turiaf all available for productive minutes. But with the gratuitous length of TV time outs, the Celtics do not have to dig very deep in order to rest their starters.
The Celtics should concentrate on using only Posey, Eddie House, and the forever young P.J. Brown off the bench. Posey can provide valuable defense on Kobe and can spell Allen or Pierce. House should be used as the back-up point guard for no other reason than to keep the fossilized remains of Sam Cassell off the court. And Brown is a proven veteran with excellent playoff performances each of the past two years.
Coach Doc Rivers has struggled to keep his rotation consistent in the playoffs, but maybe looking across the scorers table at Phil Jackson can inspire him to take a less hands-on approach. During the regular season, Rivers showed greater restraint in managing his players. He must get back to that form in the Finals.
5. Protect Home Court in Games One and Two.
In a playoffs where home teams have enjoyed a tremendous advantage, winning games at home becomes more critical than most seasons. The Celtics so far have only dropped one home game in this post-season, but they have only won two on the road. Expect this trend to continue in the finals.
If the Celtics lose one of the first two games in Boston, they will be on the ropes as the series heads out to California. The 2-3-2 format means they would need to steal at least one game in Los Angeles just to bring the series back to Boston.
Facing a Lakers team that has not lost at the Staples Center in these playoffs, that is easier said than done. To stop themselves from landing in such a precarious position, the Celtics need to win both games at home to start the series.
The only path the C's have to taking home the title travels through an extended series. In order to ensure that they do not need to win one or more games in LA to push the series to six or seven games, they must win Games One and Two.
If Allen and Rondo can bring their games to the level they need to be, if the defense can control the Lakers' supporting cast, and if Doc Rivers can effectively manage his personnel, the Celtics should be able to push the series back to Boston.
Even then, Kobe Bryant has the guts to lead his team in the most hostile of environments.
Great players come through in big games, and the Celtics have three of those. An opponent like the Lakers should show what this team is really made of. If they execute this game plan, they will prove to be the championship material people expected after a dominant regular season.
Count on another title for the Celtics.
Prediction: Celtics in 7