Let me preface this blog’s maiden voyage with a small disclaimer. I did not grow up in an NBA city and therefore have no allegiance to any single team. The NBA is a player driven league –players become the face of a franchise, and have the power to dominate games and seasons in a way that no other sport allows for (the only possible equivalent is the quarterback of an NFL franchise). As an avid basketball fan and sometimes player, I have tended to root for and appreciate those players who are the most entertaining, the most charismatic, the most marketable, and if in the process they have had championship success so be it. (this tendency to root for players rather than for a franchise in NBA basketball has created some illwill among my friends who contend that I’ve changed teams more times than that George Michael) In my lifetime--I was too young to remember in his prime, but I am old enough to remember him in his surgical glory, dissecting teams with a bevy of offensive moves rather than relying on the pure athleticism that had vaulted him to superstardom—Lebron James has been the most electrifying player to watch. As a high school student I watched Lebron maul my 5’10 pimply faced peers with tomahawk jams and “No regard for human life”—in the words of Marv Albert as he posterized KG in the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals. I wanted to be one of them, to be on the court, to see the most highly touted high school basketball player since Lual Cindor. Alas, being from I was not able to be there but I was hooked on his ability to amaze, his athleticism and poise. I have been an avid fan ever since and have come down squarely, bringing light to the darkness, on the vs Lebron debate ever since. You guys should know that I am a Lebron apologist, but while he didn’t have an MJ or Magic type transcendent series against the Celtics, it was because they legitimately stymied his offensive game and exposed the Cleveland front office’s failure to acquire the moving pieces necessary to facilitate a championship run. (This will also pain me as I the only sports city I hate more than is . The only thing I like about the city is Boston Market. Know that every keystroke I make after this aside makes me die a little inside).
The Celtics are “old” says every possible basketball pundit from Marc Jackson (the man who has coined the worst announcers catch phrase of the last century “Mama, there goes that man” whenever any superstar hits a couple of shots) to ESPN’s resident football announcer Chris Berman. But, when you really look at the numbers, are they really that old, are they really too feeble to win championships? They have three future Hall of Fame guys in KG, Pierce and Ray Allen. KG (who unlike some of his teammates will never have a career as a studio analyst or game announcer since he’s likely to drop F bombs on the regular and will likely be typecast as a villain in any B action movie as long as he keeps his villain beard. I’m rooting for a non-animated Aladdin and KG as a Jafaar.) was taken in the 1995 draft and is only 34 years old. Sure, his body has been beaten and battered by fourteen seasons in the league, but unlike many of his peers, he has not wasted summers playing international basketball recently and has been able to recuperate during the offseason and even during the season because of the vast reserves of talent that surrounds him on the Celtics. As a lanky and athletic bigman, KG exposed the Cavalier’s import Antawn Jamison, hitting turnaround and face up jumpers over the smaller and defensively challenged Jamison. (Also, will the NBA analysts quit talking about Jamison’s unorthodox shooting style? The man bricked everything in this last series, orthodox, unorthodox, shot on a Tyco hoop, the trade was a failure and I don’t care how nice or good looking Jamison is, get him and his goofy looking running floaters out of ). Paul Pierce, while he had an abysmal series through the first four games, was able to get it going down the stretch, hitting his goofy looking but effective three point shot and bothering James on the defensive end. Pierce is only two years removed from his epic duel with James in game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals and is still quite capable defensively. He also benefitted from a skittish Mike Brown who overreacted to Rondo’s game four performance and no longer had to deal with Lebron guarding him in the final two games of the series. The Truth is that Pierce is still a scorer and a defensive stopper even if he isn’t able to put a team on his shoulders the way he could a few years ago.
Jesus Shuttlesworth is simply one of the greatest shooters in the history of the game and his mechanical, and lighting fast shooting motion is simply a joy to watch. The other facets of Allen’s game are underrated as well, he gets to the basket effectively because everyone is forced to overplay him, and he played excellent defense on James throughout the series. Ray Allen is a product of the 1996 draft and as a pure shooter rather than a guy who consistently slashes, he is able to avoid much of the physical wear and tear that plagues big men and basket attacking guards. (Unfortunately for Ray, he looks more and more like Sam Cassell. I love watching him shoot but I sometimes wonder if the Men in Black get floor seats to Celtics games from Allen the way they did for Rodman’s Bulls’ games in the 90s. Also, how boss is that 1996 NBA draft in retrospect. Ray Allen, Steve Nash, Derek Fisher, and Kobe Bryant are all first round picks represented over a decade later as key pieces to teams with championship aspirations?) Rajon Rondo, is without question, in the conversation as one of the games best point guards. While I would still rank Deron Williams, Chris Paul, and Steve Nash ahead of him because of their experience and ability to produce despite not being surrounded by three Hall of Fame guys, Rondo is clearly capable of vaulting himself into a rare and elite point guard echelon. His ability to rebound from the point guard position is perhaps his most overlooked yet important ability. While the Cavaliers had basically four (maybe only three rebounders if they had Mo Williams AND Delonte West on the floor), the Celtics were able to rebound defensively and offensively with all five players. His speed and rebounding ability, which allowed him to push the pace of the game and find open shooters in transition was the key offensive difference in this series. In the half court game he was able to get into the lane and find the aforementioned “ Three-party” (thank you Scott van Pelt). You simply cannot win a championship without All-Star play from a point guard or shooting guard who is able to dictate the game, and in Rondo (and maybe Pierce) the Celtics have that player. The Magic cannot win a championship because, for all of Jameer Nelson and Vince Carter’s ability to score, neither are playmakers for others. Unless you have a guard who is a playmaker, championships are beyond your reach. Sorry Dwight. I’ll expound on that theory another time, but these four guys are the reason why Lebron and his merry (or not so merry if rumors of a locker room feud are substantiated) men lost to the Celtics. They are simply too deep to be beaten by a team that relies on one person for all of their scoring and offensive facilitation (read: assists). Mo Williams is a point guard, but he has no control over that offense and does not find teammates (read: is slow, a defensive liability and a poor passer). While Lebron is a superstar, he has yet to develop the ruthless efficiency (and maybe just the ruthlessness) of guys like , Magic, Bird, or . At this stage in his career, without developing a reliable post game and more effective jump shot, he can be beaten by teams with several lanky and athletic defenders who can absorb fouls and clog the lane. The Cavs were simply beaten by a team that recognized that the merry men could not beat them, an aging Shaq, an overrated Jamison, and a prone to choke point guard were not going to pick up the slack if James was forced to work for every basket. This dedication to defense and game plan tailored to stopping James even if it meant dunks for Shaq (the geriSHAQtric) is what killed the Cavaliers, not James’ apathy, his elbow, his desire to bolt , or anything else. (For the record there was really only one game, game 5, in which James looked totally disinterested. For the rest of the series he played with the same trademark intensity and fire that have marked his career. He looked to facilitate in first halves and take over in the second. That it didn’t work is a testament to ’s defense.)
The Conference Finals:
will beat . Dwight Howard is an athlete pure and simple but he is not, at this stage of his career, capable of winning a championship without developing a more reliable repertoire of moves than a dunk. Anybody can dunk (except me) but not everyone can hit a turn around jumper, a running hook, or a face-up jumper. Unless Howard diversifies, he can be stopped by big strong defenders who can do work before the catch and push Howard away from the basket. And, like I said, the Magic do not have elite guard play that will allow them to win a championship. Jameer Nelson will be no match for Rondo throughout the course of this series, even if Rondo had a less than stellar game one (read: the Three-Party captured their collective dominance of yesteryear and Rondo wasn’t forced to produce). The Magic will lose the series in six games and set up a compelling (though not as compelling as vs Lebron) finals rematch of two years ago.
The Celtics will face the Lakers. Book it. While I love Nash and his Los Suns, there is no way that they will beat the Lakers and their genetically engineered frontcourt. Amare Stoudemire does not have the size or strength to push Gasol or Bynum away from the basket, and will have difficulty rebounding. The Suns only hope is that Jason Richardson, Channing Frye, and Steve Nash channel the timeless game, NBA Jam and are literally able to hit every shot, do front flip dunks, and do that cool bonus trick where they run along the top of the screen before dropping in for dunks. Unless that happens, the Lakers size and ’s ability to close will win the day. The Celtics, however, can match up with the Lakers. They do not have an army of athletic 6’10 or better players (Odom, Gasol, Bynum), but they will be able to play defense against this team. They have the two baddest beards left in basketball (Baron Davis, who’s beard is so well trimmed I think the Clippers’ call timeouts just to bring out the shaving kit, is obviously in a class of beard greatness all his own) in KG and Kendrick Perkins, as well as Glenn “Big Baby, Uno Uno, The Ticket Stub”, or my personal favorite “The Fly Catcher” (because his mouth is always open) Davis. These three guys, in addition to Rasheed Wallace, who despite his season-long laziness has decided to start hitting shots and playing defense, will be able to neutralize the Lakers size advantage. Advantage: None Ron Artest cannot shoot the basketball, and for all his defensive prowess, great offense beat great defense, and Pierce and Allen (whom he will presumably chase) are savvy enough scorers to point up points despite Artest’s defense. Advantage: Celtics. will be checked by Pierce, Jesus Shuttlesworth, and Tony Allen. He will score points but will be forced to guard either Pierce or Jesus and chasing them around will be tiring. While the is one of the greatest players of all time, the Laker’s advantage with this matchup is slim because he will be facing two Hall of Famers. At the point guard position, the Celtics have a clear advantage. Fisher is a serviceable player, he works hard and has a knack for hitting big shots. But his age will be exposed by a younger and faster Rondo. He will be unable to stop Rondo in the open floor, and like Mo Williams, even if he plays off, Rondo will be able to blow by him. Advantage: Celtics.
As much as I hate it, I think the Celtics are poised to win another championship and we will see the players casual fist pump after big shots for another month. (No team in modern memory has managed to get as many slow motion fist pumps in right before commercials. Less ridiculous than ’s teeth barring and motionless fist, and less bragadocious than Lebron’s flexing or leaping, the Celtics have mastered the subtle fist pump. KG, fistpumping after a Rondo lay-up, Pierce sitting at the scorer’s table fist pumping, or Allen fistpumping subtly after a three. The Celtics have clearly practiced and choreographed this. I have the over under for fist-pumps on their games standing at 10). The Lakers’ size advantage, though it has wrought havoc this far, will be negated by the Lakers. Ront Artest will prove to be an offensive liability, Kobe will be his usual sensational if cold, selfish, calculating, and non-inspiring teammate (Read: I’m a Lebron fan) self, while Fisher is ultimately exposed as an aging point guard whose penchant for hitting big shots will no longer outweigh his inability to get defensive stops. Boston, for all your moaning about being an abused sports city, the last decade has been pretty sweet, quit pretending you have a chip on your shoulder like Philly. They’re much more tortured than you, even if the Phillies won two years ago, than . ***uhh, guess I was wrong.