Friday April 18th, 2008

On the eve of an NBA tournament that promises to be more unpredictable than March Madness, the Celtics have emerged as the surest thing on the books. Here's why they're the safest pick to win the championship in two months:

5. They enter the playoffs with the league's strongest threesome. There was much preseason skepticism from rival teams that Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen could and would excel to each other's benefit. Each had been the main star on a losing team, and none had ever reached the NBA Finals.

The key here has been Garnett, who in the past was criticized for not being the kind of finisher to drag his team through the last two minutes of tight games. That's because he has always been a complementary star who -- until now -- had never played with elite scorers. He is more like Bill Russell than Wilt Chamberlain; his most important defensive and teamwork qualities cannot be measured statistically. Those qualities have been maximized this year. The scoring numbers of all three stars have diminished as Pierce and Allen have exerted more effort defensively, thanks not only to Garnett's leadership at that end but also the belief that their energies on defense will pay off with a championship.

The bottom line is that the star trios of the Spurs (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan), Suns (Steve Nash, Amaré Stoudemire and Shaquille O'Neal) and Lakers (Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom) haven't been as consistent as Garnett, Pierce and Allen. The most noble adjustment has been made by Allen, who accepted the No. 3 role in the offense. After home games, Garnett and Pierce hold a joint news conference in a separate media room, while Allen handles interviews at his locker. No NBA star has altered his game more for the sake of his team this year than Allen, who has labored to defend the top shooting guards while attempting a 10-year low 13.5 shots per game.

4. They aren't too old. The Celtics are trying to become the first NBA team to win a championship with three leading scorers in their 30s. Their 29-3 start led to New Year's fears that they would burn out prematurely, much as Detroit frittered away home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference playoffs the past two seasons. Those complacent Pistons, however, already had a ring on their fingers amid successive trips to the NBA Finals; these Celtics, despite their runaway domination of the conference, are still the hungriest team in the league while ranking No. 2 in scoring defense (0.22 points behind Detroit) and No. 1 in both three-point and overall field-goal defense. That hunger to prove themselves appears to be a more important dynamic than their accrued mileage. It's hard to pick against a contender loaded with talent, experience and ambition -- especially in a best-of-seven format that limits playoff upsets.

3. They've united quickly. A Celtics championship would complete the biggest single-season transformation in league history: The last team to win a championship with two newcomers among its top three scorers was the 1948-49 Minneapolis Lakers, who were an expansion franchise. I spent an hour searching through the Official NBA Guide (I had to go through an older one; the new dumbed-down version lacks the detail to answer such questions) and I was amazed to realize that the Celtics are trying to accomplish something that is unprecedented. I always knew that overhauled rosters tend to not win the NBA Finals, but I didn't know that that they never win championships in the first year. So it will be an amazing achievement if the Celtics emerge this season.

Note that the Celtics' remake went far deeper than the acquisitions of Garnett and Allen. They enter the playoffs with a half-dozen new players in their extended 12-man rotation since last season, as well as an entirely new approach to defense. Though the Celtics were my preseason pick to earn the No. 1 seed in the East, I figured they would lose the conference finals to the mainstay Pistons because that's how the NBA works. But a strange thing happened at the trade deadline: The Suns, Lakers, Mavericks and Cavaliers transformed their rosters too. Their changes haven't been as drastic as those in Boston, but the end result is that the Celtics have been playing together longer than those contenders. And they've been more consistent than the Pistons and Spurs, though, of course, the Celtics' newfound teamwork has yet to undergo the ultimate postseason test. Nonetheless, this may be a year in which Boston creates a new dynamic for the NBA -- the ultimate quick fix.

2. Their role players have been reliable. We won't know for sure until the final game is done, but note that the Celtics went 7-2 during Garnett's midseason absence, and they won 11 of their final 12 even as the stars were being rested.

Second-year point guard Rajon Rondo has channeled his early-season nerves into aggressive play at both ends while earning the confidence of teammates who earlier this season wondered how far he could lead them. Young center Kendrick Perkins has emerged as a rebounder and occasional shot-blocker to complement Garnett. The late-season additions of Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown have shored up the backcourt and the post, respectively, joining James Posey, Eddie House, rookie Glen (Big Baby) Davis and Leon Powe as reliable providers off the bench.

The playoffs will create new demands and the complementary players must prove themselves capable in those high-pressure situations, but at least they've established their confidence during the regular season.

1. Doc Rivers has maintained control. Rivers began the year as a vulnerable coach who has never won a playoff series, but he has presided over a season without controversy while establishing new roles for the three stars and developing a new partnership with associate head coach Tom Thibodeau overseeing the defense. Rivers' rapport with his players appears to be stronger than the relationship between Detroit coach Flip Saunders and his Pistons, and that could be a subtle but important advantage for Boston in the conference finals.

4. Detroit Pistons. Their improved, young bench has provided the starters with more rest this season, but the Pistons still depend on Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace. Over the last two months, they've appeared to be lapsing into their old habit of coasting through games, which is entirely understandable for a team that has reached the last five conference finals. Can they achieve the everyday intensity demanded of a championship team? On that issue, the glass is no longer half full.

3. Phoenix Suns. They acquired Shaq to compete against San Antonio, but is he integrated well enough to make a comprehensive difference? Will the Suns have the timing and shared understanding necessary to beat a Spurs team that has been together forever? Nash must show tremendous will to drive Phoenix through what is surely the hardest draw in the playoffs.

2. San Antonio Spurs. The league's oldest team has 11 players who are at least 30. Manu Ginobili has been the Spurs' MVP this season, though he appeared to be wearing down in recent weeks. Do they have it in them to elevate for the playoffs? No one is counting them out, but with a strong first-round opponent in Phoenix, they won't be able to play themselves into the postseason.

1. Los Angeles Lakers. Can they reach the Finals without Andrew Bynum? They can't depend on having him in the playoffs, or on expecting much from him if he does become available after the first round. But Kobe has been this year's Michael Jordan, and he still has Gasol and Odom. Derek Fisher is the second coming of Robert Horry when it comes to beating the buzzer, and Phil Jackson has more than twice as many championship rings as the rest of the playoff coaches combined.

Note that the Lakers drew the easiest bracket in the tournament by avoiding San Antonio, Phoenix and Dallas -- the West's most experienced teams -- in the first two rounds.

L.A.'s fear used to be that Bryant would try to carry the Lakers by himself. Now it's a likelihood that he'll pick the right times to do so, and it's welcomed.

3. LeBron James. His Cavaliers went 14-13 after Ben Wallace arrived in the midseason trade. But James led his team deeper into the playoffs last season than predicted, and he averaged an outrageous 30.0 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.2 assists this year.

2. Chauncey Billups. He inexplicably went south during the playoffs last year, but Billups has spent this entire season aiming for a conference finals against the Celtics. It would be the first time in four years that the Pistons would enter that stage of the tournament as underdogs, and Billups would have advantages in size and experience against Boston's Rondo. He could make the difference in the East.

1. Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavericks have gone only 16-13 since Jason Kidd came to Dallas, but Nowitzki believes the adaptation was successful: that Kidd has put the reigning MVP back in catch-and-shoot positions that will restore his ability to hit game-changing three-pointers and attack before the defense can react. We'll see if he's right. The Mavericks are just happy they avoided a first-round matchup against the Lakers or Spurs.

2. From an Eastern Conference advance scout: He believes the Celtics will sweep the Hawks, the Lakers will dispatch the Nuggets in five games and the Jazz will get by the Rockets without much trouble. In the other series (plus a bonus Finals pick) ...

New Orleans-Dallas: "I like New Orleans. There's still too much turmoil there in Dallas, and New Orleans has been steady the whole year, give or take this last week. Now, it's going to take [Peja] Stojakovic hitting shots in the playoffs, which he hasn't done in the past on a consistent level. But they've got all the components -- a shot-blocking, rebounding center [Tyson Chandler], a scoring forward [David West], perimeter shooting and a point guard [Chris Paul] who's pretty damn good. Dallas has the forward and the point guard, but is [Kidd] there every night? I don't know about that right now. And I don't think they've got the center New Orleans has. Plus, New Orleans might have the wild card in Bonzi [Wells] coming off the bench.''

San Antonio-Phoenix: "That series is close, too, but I'm leaning toward Phoenix. They have the size on the defensive end to deal with Duncan, and the factors that San Antonio had in the past are dwindling. Horry and [Brent] Barry have not been there, and Ginobili has had a lot of time off lately -- is he rusty, is he ready to play? On the other hand, he could step up and win it on his own. Even Parker's been spotty this year. In saying that they still won a lot of games, and when they're clicking they're very, very, very good. Duncan won't be able to get away playing the 5 spot as much defensively because he'll have to foul Shaq down the stretch, and that's going to be interesting to see how many fouls he has to give.''

Washington-Cleveland: "I like Washington. Cleveland is sputtering. You've got the guy who can take over a game in [Gilbert] Arenas and we've seen him do it before. I don't have a lot of faith in the [Ben] Wallace-[Zydrunas] Ilgauskas combo, and [Sasha] Pavlovic is out with an [ankle] injury. Washington is a team that has been together a long time, though Arenas has been missing until recently. But I think they could beat Cleveland and then give Boston a run in the second round.''

Detroit-Philadelphia: "This ends up being a Detroit win, though maybe not as easy as a sweep. Philly likes to scramble the game: They're better when the pace is up and down, they're in transition from steals and deflections and they're keeping teams from running half-court sets against them. But that's hard to do in a seven-game series. The advantage for a team like that during the season is that teams aren't prepared night-in, night-out to solve your traps. But in a seven-gamer when they see it night after night, you can't get away with it. You have to be selective when you use it. Sometimes Philly will play an entire half like that in the regular season.''

Orlando-Toronto: "I'm taking Orlando. It seems like Toronto is very combustible between the injuries and not getting a lot out of [Andrea] Bargnani. I think they've got some issues in their locker room with their point-guard situation, that they're not completely sold on who they want in the lineup from the start. And probably some people like one [T.J. Ford] vs. the other [Jose Calderon], and there are probably some in the locker room who like one or the other. It will be interesting how that plays out. I'd rather have Calderon myself, and he's the one who's going to be available this summer as a free agent.''

NBA Finals: "I'm picking Boston and the Lakers. Boston wins it, because they've got the MVP, Kevin Garnett.''

1. From a Western Conference advance scout: He agrees that the Celtics, Lakers, Pistons and Jazz will win the first round easily. Of the Jazz-Rockets series, he said: "Houston's done a great job getting into the playoffs, but in a seven-game series they're overmatched against any opponent in the West. They have a nice system in place, they're pretty consistent in what they're doing every game, but with Yao [Ming] gone they're the least talented team in the playoffs -- even with [Tracy] McGrady. After him, they've been getting maximum effort out of those other guys.''

New Orleans-Dallas: "There could be an upset -- not a really big chance, though. New Orleans isn't playing really well right now, and I worry that they rely a little bit too much on their scoring. They don't run a lot of plays, and if Dallas can lock into a couple of their key plays in the half court and keep them out of the full court, they'll have a chance. Dallas has enough scoring to hang with New Orleans, and defensively they're probably a little bit better than New Orleans. A lot depends on how those guys for New Orleans are shooting from the outside. They've had a great year, but they're going to rely on their outside shooting and sometimes that will leave you in the playoffs.''

San Antonio-Phoenix: "I like San Antonio. Some guys think Phoenix will give them a good run, but I'm going with San Antonio's experience. Shaq will be a presence inside; I don't think San Antonio will mess around double-teaming him, so he'll have some success. But I think he'll create bigger problems for his team defensively trying to handle San Antonio's high pick-and-roll and -- if Ginobili is healthy -- the pick-and-roll with Ginobili on the wing. With Nash and Shaq as the defenders, they're going to have their problems defending the pick-and-roll no matter what. So Shaq will have a big problem making an impact defensively. I think Ginobili will be OK after the rest they gave him. Having home court could be a big advantage for San Antonio because this is going to be a close [series].''

Orlando-Toronto: "Toronto has a chance, especially if [Chris] Bosh is healthy, because he's a guy they can go to. They do a good job of spreading the court and getting open shots for their guys. Calderon's a pretty good point guard, and they're well organized on their pick-and-roll when they're spreading the court as well as they do. So they're going to be able to score, and if they can get some stops they'll be OK. I still give Orlando the edge, but not by much. Orlando's point-guard position has been a little weak this year, and Dwight Howard doesn't have a go-to move. He's been getting 20 and 10, but is he going to be able to do that in the playoffs? We don't know. Hedo Turkoglu is going to be a big problem for Toronto, but Rashard Lewis at the 4 doesn't scare me too much.''

Cleveland-Washington: "That should be interesting. What's the deal with Arenas? Is he going to be ready? If he had played the whole season, I'd say they have a good chance. But I think Cleveland is going to take care of this series. Washington did a good job just getting into the playoffs. How is Arenas going to come back and play at a high playoff level after not playing the last several months? I don't think anyone can do it. Michael Jordan had a hard time doing it when he came back.''

NBA Finals: "I'm picking Boston to come out of the East, though I would still give Detroit a chance to knock them off. I didn't like Boston to win the conference at the start of the year, but it just seems like it's their year.

"In the West, I still believe in San Antonio so long as Ginobili is healthy. If he isn't healthy, then I like the Lakers because they have the MVP and they have two very good players beside him, plus Fisher is an underrated playoff performer. If it comes down to a healthy San Antonio against the Lakers in the conference finals, I wonder how Gasol and Odom are going to do in those big games. But I know how the Spurs will do in those situations.

"So I'm going with San Antonio to beat Boston in the Finals.''

1. Mavericks beat the Pistons in the NBA Finals. I know how obstinate I'm being here, but this was my pick in the preseason and I might as well see it through. The East is going to come down to the Pistons and the Celtics, a few key plays here and there will be decisive, and Detroit has more experienced players for those situations than Boston.

The Mavericks are a long shot, but after all of their changes they still won 51 games. Their side of the bracket is so tight that there's no consensus on a favorite. The team that makes it out of the West is going to look back on the six-week conference tournament and wonder, How did we do this? Because there is a valid reason to pick against every team in that conference, whether it's the absence of Bynum in Los Angeles, the age of the Spurs, the enigmatic presence of Shaq, etc. One team is ultimately going to pull it together, and I still think Dallas is capable with three All-Stars in their starting lineup along with the complementary scoring of Jason Terry and Jerry Stackhouse. They defend, they're scoring now in transition and they have a foundation of structured play that makes them even more dangerous when they play fluidly.

After spending a couple of games around the Mavericks last weekend, I sense that Nowitzki is more optimistic and less burdened than he was exactly one year ago. Of course I'm rationalizing here, but if there is a year for the No. 7 seed to win the West, this is it.

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