Tuesday June 3rd, 2008

I understand why almost everybody is picking the Lakers, but the talk is getting carried away. The mistake is to believe that the Finals won't be competitive, and that the Celtics have no chance.

I understand that the Lakers have the MVP in Kobe Bryant -- the best player on the court usually wins the Finals -- and the wisest, most accomplished coach in Phil Jackson. The Lakers not only have been the highest-scoring team in the playoffs at 105.9 points a game, but they've also tightened their field-goal defense to yield 43.3 percent shooting in the postseason -- just 1.2 percent behind the league-leading Celtics.

All season I was picking Detroit to beat Boston in the Eastern Conference finals, so understand that I've been skeptical of the Celtics in the postseason. If they struggled so badly in the early rounds against Atlanta and Cleveland, then how could they ever beat a superior team like the Lakers?

Here are two things I've come to realize about these Celtics: First, they needed those extra opening-round games in order to learn how to play together as a postseason team. As pointed out numerous times here, the Celtics are trying to become the first "overhauled'' team to win the championship in its initial year (i.e. no team has ever been champion with two new players among its three leading scorers, as the Celtics are seeking to accomplish with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen).

Second, the Celtics should be judged more so by their recent successes against Detroit than by their failures against Atlanta and Cleveland. It's no fluke that Paul Pierce established himself as leader of the offense against the Pistons, or that Ray Allen found a useful role as a secondary playmaker and shooter from the seams. The Celtics needed all 20 of their postseason games to develop those strengths, and they can be expected to carry that offensive hierarchy into the Finals against the Lakers.

While the Celtics must worry about guarding Bryant and his fellow scorers (see below), the Lakers will have their own concerns defensively. Who is going to guard Pierce? If he approaches each contest as if it's a Game 7, if he establishes his game early by driving to the basket instead of settling for three-pointers, then he is going to cause matchup problems for the Lakers. And because he has become such a good passer, he'll create shots for Allen and the others. The Celtics obviously need big performances from their three stars, but they're capable of developing them so long as Pierce is aggressive.

The last three rounds have shown that Garnett is going to get his points. Pierce needs to be -- and can be -- the star of this series for the Celtics, and in that case Allen will have opportunities to finish from the perimeter as he did in the last two games against the Pistons. It's a good bet that the Lakers are more worried about losing to Pierce and Allen than they are of Garnett beating them offensively.

The strength the Celtics carry into these Finals is their No. 1-rated defense. I asked several coaches about Boston's defense at the NBA predraft camp last week in Orlando, and they all pointed out that the Celtics have the size and length to execute the defensive tenets that assistant coach Tom Thibodeau developed while working the last decade for Jeff Van Gundy.

The Celtics get two or three defenders back in transition to prevent easy baskets. In the half-court, they keep the ball out of the paint and shrink the floor by loading defenders to the strong side. Though they often leave shooters open on the far side of the court, the Celtics are excellent at sprinting across the floor to close out and contest jump shots -- which is how they were able to lead the league in three-point field-goal defense (31.6 percent) as well as overall field-goal defense (41.9 percent).

The surprising defensive efforts of Pierce (who guarded LeBron James) and Allen (who must guard Bryant) have been crucial, as will be the versatility of James Posey: He made big plays during the Miami Heat's championship run two years ago, and his ability to guard everyone from Lamar Odom to Bryant can enable Boston to adapt to the Lakers' variety of lineups.

"They have a balance defensively,'' Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan said of the Celtics. "If you want to be big and physical, they can play that way. If you want to go small and athletic, they can play that way too.''

Among the Boston defenders who received praise in Orlando was second-year point guard Rajon Rondo. The Celtics don't view him as a sure thing defensively -- they've been on him all year to pressure the ball without gambling for steals -- but he has a strong reputation around the league.

"It's a lot easier when your guard can control the ball for those big men to get up and get out,'' McMillan said. "As opposed to if your guard can't control that ball, then it puts so much pressure on the rest of your defense. It starts out front for the Celtics, and they've got a great guard that can pressure you. Rondo can be aggressive and disrupt you with his feet and his hands.''

Another reason why I'm expecting a competitive series is that Boston won't surrender easily. If Bryant is breaking them down with his scoring and playmaking, the Celtics will respond by raising their effort.

"It's not so much what you do but the consistency and the effort you put into it,'' Nets coach Lawrence Frank said. "If you practice good habits and that's who you are and what you do, your players have faith and confidence because they know over the course of time that's what has worked for them.

"You're going to see Boston's core defense 95 percent of the time. Only if there's something that's really hurting them will you see them make a major adjustment. They have belief and commitment that this is what we're going to do at the right place and the right time, and they give great effort. They say, 'This is who we are, this is what defines us, and whether it's losing a quarter, a game or two games, we're not going to let that sway us from understanding this is how we win.' "

Of course the Lakers should be favored based on all of their advantages as well as their superior play throughout the postseason. But it's not so hard to imagine Pierce, Allen and Garnett -- in that order -- inflicting damage of their own at the other end of the court. In which case the series will boil down to this scenario, as laid out by Rockets assistant coach Elston Turner.

"The Lakers will spread you out because they have guys that can shoot it and they have guys that can move,'' Turner said. "It will be interesting to see what the Celtics are going to concede. They will have to concede something. The more you are spread out defensively, the more they can get to that basket. But if you're packing it in to protect the basket, you're going to give up some three-point shots to the Lakers.

"The Lakers will move that ball and find an open guy. Kobe is a guy that can break away from the system and create. Knowing that, you have to have a secondary protection back there. You're going to have to have somebody ready to slide in to protect the rim, because he's going to get around.

"The Lakers have more weapons, and they're not going to stand around and watch Kobe. There's a lot more ball movement going on with the Lakers than the Celtics have seen so far. And that ball movement is always hard to guard.''

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