Thursday June 5th, 2008

Click here for five reasons why the Lakers will win the NBA Finals.

Throughout his career, Paul Pierce has been in the company of legends -- Red Auerbach, Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Bob Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn, Jo Jo White, Satch Sanders and others. And though he has the type of career numbers that would -- on paper -- put him on par with many of those Celtics greats, Pierce has never considered any of them peers. Until now.

With four more playoff victories, the 10-year veteran can move into their category, making the leap from star to legend. Gaudy statistics may get a player's number raised to the rafters in other cities, but in Boston greatness is measured by rings on your fingers.

"In Boston, they always talk about how many championships you won," Bird said. "I think it's very important for Paul to win one if he wants to be put up there with the great ones, even though I think he is a fantastic player, probably one of the best players to ever come through there."

Here, then, are five reasons why Pierce and the Celtics will beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals:

1. Pierce will have a legendary performance.

There will be no LeBron James to defend all game and no long-armed Tayshaun Prince to contest his jump shots. Pierce will benefit from guarding Vladimir Radmanovic (a streaky jump shooter) and Luke Walton much of the time while holding a considerable advantage over both at the offensive end.

And Pierce is hungry. The Boston-L.A. rivalry was what first got Pierce onto the blacktops of his native Inglewood, Calif. This will be the biggest stage he has played on, and with a decided edge in matchups, he knows it presents a golden opportunity to put forth a dominant performance.

2. KG will stifle Pau Gasol.

I've heard all the arguments for Gasol, that his athleticism and mobility will enable him to keep up with Kevin Garnett in the open floor and that his perimeter shooting will keep KG honest when the two are matched up in crunch time (Kendrick Perkins is likely to defend Gasol early in games). But I'm not buying it.

Garnett, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, is not just a great off-the-ball defender but he also excels in one-on-one situations. Detroit's Rasheed Wallace shot only 41.7 percent from the field against Garnett and the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.

Also, Tim Duncan (who averaged 22.4 points and 17.4 rebounds against the Lakers in the Western Conference finals) reaffirmed something we already knew about Gasol: The Lakers' big man is a below-average defender. Garnett will be able to exploit that when Gasol draws the assignment.

3. Kobe will have to earn his points.

One key against the Lakers is to force Kobe Bryant to take a lot of shots to get his points. The Celtics succeeded with that in winning both regular-season meetings (before Gasol arrived in a midseason trade). In a 107-94 loss at Boston on Nov. 23, Bryant scored 28 points -- but needed 21 shots to do it. In a 110-91 home loss Dec. 30, Bryant had 22 points on only 6-for-25 shooting.

Boston, with assistant coach Tom Thibodeau as the architect, will undoubtedly throw a variety of defenses at Bryant. Ray Allen will get the lion's share of the work, but he will be assisted by James Posey and even Pierce. Tony Allen, who was part of the Celtics' strong defensive effort against Kobe in the regular season, might not be available because of an Achilles tendon injury.

4. The Celtics will make Kobe play defense.

Bryant spent a lot of time defending Utah's Ronnie Brewer and San Antonio's Bruce Bowen in the previous two series. Neither is much of an offensive threat. Ray Allen is.

Granted, this hasn't been Allen's finest postseason: He is averaging 14.2 points on only 40.3 percent shooting from the field and 34 percent from three-point range. But Allen seemed to regain his stroke toward the end of the Detroit series, scoring 29 points (on 9-of-15 shooting) in Game 5 and adding 17 (on 6-of-12) in the Game 6 clincher.

The best way to slow down a great offensive player is to force him to play defense. Despite Allen's struggles, he is still a threat to shoot every time he crosses the half-court line. Bryant will have to respect that. And if Allen can get hot and make Bryant expend energy defensively, it will only benefit Boston as the series progresses.

5. The Finals schedule favors the Celtics.

Let me go on record as saying the 2-3-2 format is terrible. I understand the reasoning: the desire to limit transcontinental travel for teams in the Finals. But if the road team can come away with a split in the first two games, it has a chance to win the series at home. That happened the last time the Lakers were in the Finals, in 2004, when the Pistons took Game 1 in L.A. and went on to sweep the three games in Detroit.

Still, Boston can take advantage. If they can take both games in Boston (where they are 10-1 in the playoffs after going 35-6 in the regular season), the Celtics will have to win only one game in L.A. in order to come home with two chances to clinch the series. And though the Lakers haven't lost at home in the playoffs, they have looked vulnerable, particularly in the conference finals.

Prediction: Celtics in seven games. (Click here for more predictions from SI.com's NBA writers.)

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