Come on, folks, let’s have an honest show of hands: how many people thought the Boston Celtics would, with four games played, have a commanding 3-1 lead over the Los Angeles Lakers? Celtic fans, keep your hands down, please.
Nobody? I didn’t think so. I’m as surprised as anyone else.
Coming into the finals, the Boys in Green looked to be easy prey for the quicksilver Lakers. They had a harder road in a weaker conference, needing the full seven games to dispatch both the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers. They survived a tough six-game series against the battle-tested Detroit Pistons. Their core players – the Big Three, for lack of a more creative term – are all over the age of 30, all accustomed to being The Man on their respective teams, and have yet to truly learn each other’s tendencies.
The Lakers, on paper, appeared to be the superior team. Of their three Western Conference playoff series, only one – against the Utah Jazz – went six games. They ousted the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in five games (aided, admittedly, by a controversial no-call at the end of Game Four). The Lakers have the reigning MVP, Kobe Bryant, widely acknowledged to be the game’s best player. They only had to integrate one major player, Pau Gasol, who was acquired in a very shady trade in February. And they have Phil Jackson, generally regarded as the game’s top active coach.
But today, the Lakers find themselves in a situation from which no team in NBA has ever extricated itself. Never in Finals history has a team come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the title. As the saying goes, there’s a first time for everything, but the Lakers have given no sign that they can beat these Celtics three games in a row.
So, what happened?
Well, several things. Everyone underestimated the desire and toughness of the Celts. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen form a triumvirate of stars with zero rings between them, and they each want one, quite badly. They finally learned to win on the road, in Detroit, of all places. And they are peaking at exactly the right time, learning how to play together, mustering the will to play through critical junctures in critical games.
But I think one factor has affected this series more than any other. It is the reason the Lakers find themselves in a completely unfamiliar position in these playoffs, and the reason they will not be the first team ever to take Games Five, Six, and Seven to win the title.
The Lakers are a soft team.
There were signs of this softness early in L.A.’s playoff run, but we may have been too dazzled by their offensive proficiency to see them clearly. The Utah Jazz, a team that matches up surprisingly well with the Lakers, out-rebounded them throughout the six-game western semifinal. Rebounding stats, particularly in the playoffs, are a fairly reliable gauge of a team’s toughness. If only the Jazz had an offensive answer for Bryant, we might be looking at a completely differently Finals.
Tough teams play defense. Tough teams box out and rebound. They set hard screens, fight through the other team’s picks, and battle for loose balls. The Lakers do none of these things well. Offensive output has been, for them, the great deodorant, masking their lack of grit. Now, as they battle against a hardened Celtics front line, they are being exposed for what they truly are: a compilation of offensively talented but physically passive players.
Many knowledgeable basketball people will tell you that Lamar Odom is one of the most complete offensive players in the league today. Pau Gasol and Vladimir Radmanović are two of the game’s sweetest-shooting big men. Of those three, there is not a single banger. For this reason, they have been all but eliminated from the Finals by the Celtic front line of Garnett, Pierce and Kendrick Perkins.
The average NBA fan is too young to remember that, prior to his current incarnation as coaching genius, Phil Jackson was a dirty-work forward for the championship Knicks of the 1970s. All his title teams have had dirty-work players in key roles. This crew does not. And that’s why the late Red Auerbach is somewhere, already lighting his victory cigar.
Not only will the Lakers not win a title, but they will not, as currently constructed, return to the Finals. The West is simply too tough, with too many good teams. And now the Celtics have laid out a blueprint for beating these Lakers, much like the Philadelphia Eagles showed the New York Giants how to beat the New England Patriots. You simply need to punch them in the mouth until they fall down.