The two teams who made it to the NBA Finals last season, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, both face defining moments in their seasons Sunday, though both have made it o this point in completely different ways.
For the Celtics, this season has been an emotional rollercoaster: It began with long winning streaks that were followed by the devastating loss to injury of Kevin Garnett near the middle of the campaign.
When that happened, many people, including myself, thought Boston would be done, yet, like true champions, the Celtics' role players have showed true grit and determination in surviving and advancing to this point in the playoffs against the Orlando Magic.
Then you have the Lakers, the team coming off a stinging six-game loss in the Finals last year, a club that vowed that things would be different this season. For much of the regular season, it in fact looked like that would be the case, as L.A cruised to the best overall record in the West and battled Cleveland for tops overall in the league for a while.
At times, though, they've been guilty of playing down to their competition, and seem to go long stretches at a time in a game in which they simply are on auto-pilot. Against two-thirds of the league, they can get away with that, as their talent alone allows them to win games.
However, playing a Rockets team that clearly on paper should have no chance in this series without Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, or Dikemebe Mutombo, heart and toughness has played dead even with talent so far. Sunday we will find out, in the most important game of Kobe Bryant’s career, what this team is made of.
Let’s start the predictions with the Celtics-Magic game. Boston has not had a big game from Ray Allen in this series yet, but in his place we've seen the play of Stephon Marbury and Eddie House exceed all expectations.
The Celtics still are extremely thin on their frontline, and in games where Dwight Howard gets his way in the paint, Orlando has controlled the pace. The Magic, much like the Lakers, have been guilty of mailing it in for periods, and we have seen double-digit fourth quarter leads go away very quickly.
Sunday’s game will be about the stars. The best player on the floor will move his team to the East Finals. In this same situation last year, we saw Paul Pierce play one of the best games of his career, as he out-dueled LeBron James and the Cavs. But this year, can Dwight Howard have another 25-point, 20-rebound performance and get Kendrick Perkins and Glen Davis in foul trouble so they're nonfactors? Or will two of Boston’s Big Three step up and make the key shots needed to keep it close?
Orlando, on paper, is the better team this year, but the heart of a champion and the aura surrounding Boston is going to be enough for the Celtics to survive in an overtime classic.
Final: Celtics 104, Magic 101 OT
Now for the Western Conference matchup. The Rockets enter this game knowing that they will see a Laker team come out of the gates hitting on all cylinders; they should expect Kobe Bryant to come out shooting early and for him to not defer to teammates who have not stepped up to the plate so far in this series.
If Houston wants a shot in this game, Shane Battier will have to play the best game of his pro career on the defensive end. He will not stop Kobe completely, but he will need to make Bryant work for every point. If you look at Kobe’s stat line at the half and he’s something like 6-for-18 for 17 points, then Houston should be in good shape. Bryant has nights when he goes 10-for-33, which means the other four Lakers are standing around watching.
Phil Jackson has no clue what he will get from Lamar Odom on Sunday, and Andrew Bynum's production on the offensive end would be welcomed but is not expected. Pau Gasol will be very instrumental in being that second scorer to compliment Kobe, and the play of Jordan Farmar against Aaron Brooks needs to get better.
This one won’t be pretty, and I expect it to come down to the last five minutes, but the Lakers will simply hang on and move on.
Final: Lakers 97, Rockets 92