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Pivot Points: Despite Issues, Lakers, Celtics Still the NBA's Best

Hadarii JonesSenior Writer IDecember 31, 2009

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 10:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers puts his arm on Kevin Garnett #5 of the Boston Celtics in Game Three of the 2008 NBA Finals on June 10, 2008 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

NBA history's most successful teams have resembled anything but, as the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics have found the last week devoid of anything similar to holiday cheer.

The two teams have combined to drop five out of their past seven games and have shown multiple cracks in what was felt to be impenetrable armour, along with giving hope to the other teams with championship aspirations.

Before the season started the Lakers and the Celtics were declared the odds-on favorites to win their respective conferences and to reprise their lopsided Finals matchup of 2008.

They looked every bit the part, as quick starts vaulted both to the top of the league standings and had fans of each team giddy with anticipation of a possible postseason showdown.

Each franchise recorded impressive double-digit win streaks and seemed to be in midseason form on both sides of the court, with most aspects of their games firing on all cylinders.

Despite their gaudy early season records, there were warning signs in their schedules that indicated their success may not be as substantial as it seemed, as they were both beneficiaries of soft or favorable schedules.

Only 10 out of Boston's first 31 opponents currently have winning records, and the Celtics lost four of those games, which include a sweep to Phoenix and losses at home to Orlando and Atlanta.

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The Lakers had the advantage of playing 17 out of their first 21 games in the friendly confines of the Staples Center, and although 15 of their first 31 opponents currently have winning records, more than half of those 15 opponents consist of Oklahoma City, Phoenix, and Utah.

The Lakers did win nine of those games, but three came at the hands of OKC and two more were against the Suns, and both of those were at home.

Los Angeles has only lost three of their road games so far, but all three came at the expense of teams with winning records, and the blow-out loss to Denver quickly dissolved into a laugher.

Boston was considered the best road team in the NBA until dropping three games in a row, with two of them being to the likes of the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors.

Favorable scheduling aside, there were more signs that manifested themselves through the on-court play of both teams and have turned into issues that must be resolved in order to move forward.

For Boston, the strength of its team lies in its defense, and that unit has been much more inconsistent than the unit which won the championship in 2008.

Throw in a rapidly aging core of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, and couple that with a surprising lack of intensity on the offensive and defensive boards, and you have a little reason for concern.

Los Angeles is battling familiar demons in their inconsistent point guard play and their equally inconsistent defense, which, in recent weeks, has seemed to relapse to the days of old.

For awhile it seemed the Lakers had finally grasped the importance of sustained effort on the defensive end, only to see that theory go up in smoke as soon as their road schedule started.

They had shown glimpses of their potential by holding 11 straight opponents under the 100 point mark, but over the past four games each opponent has breached that mark.

The Lakers have the most balanced offense in the league so their ability to score at will helps mask their constant lapses in defense, but their inability to keep opposing guards out of the lane is more troubling.

If the Lakers can keep guards out of the lane, then the defense has to worry less about rotating over to help, but once penetrated, the Lakers have looked slow and confused on their assignments.

This has led to numerous open looks at the rim and kick-outs to unguarded players whose defender left in an effort to provide help in the paint once the perimeter had been penetrated.

Those issues have the potential to turn into glaring problems with both teams, and on top of all of that, they are both currently dealing with injuries to key players.

Boston has been without Paul Pierce for the past four games, and Kevin Garnett had to sit out the Phoenix loss due to pain and soreness in his knee, something that must send shivers down the spines of the Boston faithful.

Los Angeles has been without the services of forward Ron Artest due to a concussion suffered after the Lakers' loss to Cleveland on Christmas Day.

All three players are integral parts of their teams' schemes, and their continued absence could have devastating effects on the chemistry and cohesion elements of both teams.

Still, with all the concerns surrounding each team the Lakers have the best overall record in the NBA and maintain a three game lead in the rugged Western Conference, while the Celtics have only slipped one-and-a-half game behind Cleveland and own a victory in their sole matchup.

Although fans of Orlando and Cleveland will argue this, when healthy the Lakers and Celtics remain the teams to beat in the race for the 2010 NBA championship.

They are the most complete teams in the league and have the added advantage of understanding exactly what it takes to reach the top of the NBA mountain.

They have proved to be vulnerable in the span of one game, but the playoffs are what each team was built for, and they each have the coaching, experience, and leadership of players who are battle-tested and approved.

The recent slides of both teams have revealed insight into the areas where they may be weak at the point of attack, but those concerns are not likely to plague them the entire course of a seven game series.

Barring further injuries the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers remain a step above the competition and still hold the designation of being the class of the NBA.