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Countdown: Playoff regrets could come back to haunt contenders

The pressure is on ... Boston? The Celtics have outplayed the favored Magic to claim a 2-0 lead in the Eastern finals while winning both games in Orlando. So guess who feels the pressure to win Game 3?

"It's huge," coach Doc Rivers said before his Celtics practiced Thursday. "We've beaten them on their floor, but we've yet to do anything on our floor. That's why it's so important. If it doesn't go right, it goes back to a normal series again."

In short, if the Celtics give Orlando hope of winning Game 3 in Boston on Saturday, if they enable the Magic to enter Game 4 with hope of evening the series, then the success of the opening two games has been turned upside down. Then the Magic are rolling back for a two-of-three mini-series with two of those games in Orlando.

The perversity of the playoffs is that success begets pressure. The better you do, the more you need to keep doing it. If you relax, you lose.

"The playoffs are really single-possession games for 48 minutes," Rivers said. "We talk about it all regular season in practice. Every time a guy makes a mistake, we try to point that out -- that [could be] one mistake in the playoffs that lost us the game. Because that's what the playoffs are. If you can get your team to be a single-possession [team on] offense-defense for 48 minutes, then you have a chance to be pretty good in the playoffs."

As thoroughly as the Celtics have controlled the play, they've led by a point or two in the final minutes of each game. The margin couldn't be narrower. That's why it's so important to have experience in the playoffs -- not only because older players should know what they're doing under pressure, but also because they can't afford to wait for a better opportunity later.

"The big thing is the urgency on every play, the value of the basketball on every single possession," Rivers said. "Young guys are so careless offensively. They wander, they don't get the playoffs. Right when it gets hard, right when they get down, that's when they start thinking, 'Man, this is a tough one this year, we can get it next year.' The older players know there are no guarantees ever to next year."

Ever since Rivers began coaching the trio of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen -- all in their 30s when they joined together in 2007 -- he has refused to enable anything other than the goal of winning championships. "I told them going into it two years ago, 'Guys, you can't take any year for granted. This has to be your year.' And fortunately we did [in 2008]; and unfortunately I was right the following year because we were injured [last season]. You just never know."

So Rivers is now presenting Game 3 as an ultimate test of his players' resolve. "We haven't achieved what we want -- all we've done is win two games in the Eastern finals," he said. "If that takes our eye off the prize, then honestly we aren't good enough. ... I told them if they can't handle it, then we're just not mentally tough enough. And at the end of the day, that's the only way you're going to be able to win."

No excuses. He hasn't played in two decades, yet Larry Bird focuses on the championships he didn't win. "We gave away a lot of opportunities because players didn't like the coach [Bill Fitch] and vice versa, but it wasn't about that," Bird said. "It was about winning a championship, and that was very important to me. Because you don't have them opportunities. [Kevin] McHale went down early [in 1986-87 with a fractured navicular bone in his right foot] and we didn't have a chance to win. So injuries play a big part, but when you have a team like we did, you can't let the coach and yourself get in a situation where you don't come out and play the way you should play every night. And that hurt us."

Will LeBron James ultimately look back on the last two seasons and regret the lost opportunities -- that his Cavaliers were unable to overcome whatever prevented them from peaking in the playoffs?

"The way I played, I knew it wasn't going to last long," Bird said last November. "I had a lot of people tell me -- and a lot of doctors tell me -- if you continue to play the way you play and rack up the minutes, your body can't take it. And I knew that. I knew it was going to come to an end. I just thought it was going to [end] a lot sooner than what it did."

Bird's perspective should be taken seriously by any modern star in the playoffs.

"When we won it in '81, we were young," he said of his first of three NBA titles with the Celtics. "We had a good team but we were really young with Robert [Parish] and Kevin, myself and [Cedric Maxwell], and I just thought if we continued to work hard and do the things that's necessary, we could win a lot of championships early. And we went like a three-year span there and never did it. Then in '84 we got back and lucked out and won that championship [against the Lakers when Magic Johnson played badly for the Lakers]. That was a lucky win there; we started playing really well at the end but our confidence was shot early. Then when we got to '85 [in a rematch against the Lakers] and I thought we had a great opportunity to win it there, but we lost it. Then we went out and got [Bill] Walton and won it in '86.

"I think about if we'd stayed healthy. Our downfall started in '87-88. But if we'd had Walton back to give us a half a season, I thought we could have done it. The Lakers said it was their best team, but I thought we were pretty good."

How many players are so focused on winning each and every year regardless of circumstances and excuses?

"I don't know," said Joe Dumars, the Pistons' president and Hall of Fame guard. "You would like to think that all these great players are thinking about these opportunities not being there forever. But unless you live with them every day, play with them every day, fight with them every day, you don't really know if they do or not."

The haunting. "In '88, Game 6, I had a runner with under 10 seconds to go," Dumars said of his Pistons' appearance in the NBA Finals against the Lakers. "We were up 3-2 in the series, and I had a runner in the lane that didn't go in. It was a busted play, I ended up with the ball and I missed it. We lost that series. In that same year, Isiah [Thomas] got hurt [with a badly sprained ankle in Game 6]. But I think about that, that we were down one [point] at the time, and I think about that runner. That's the one thing -- that Game 6, less than 10 seconds left, you got a runner and it doesn't go in. That bothers you. It bothers me."

Twenty-two years later and Dumars -- one of the most successful players and executives of his era -- cannot get over it. But Dumars believes that loss helped him and the Pistons win championships the next two years.

"You talk about motivation for the next year, incredible motivation," he said. "Everybody had their own reasons for motivation. Isiah because of the ankle injury. Also, they called a foul on [Bill] Laimbeer in that series -- in Detroit they call it the 'phantom foul,' it gave Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] two free throws. So Laimbeer was motivated by that. I was motivated by the fact I had a runner in the lane that should have went. And as a team we were motivated because we thought we were the best team, we just weren't ready to be champions yet. We had that one year under our belt, and now we know what it takes to win.''

The reward. You can't tell for certain which players are focused on winning championships until they've won them. "Those are the Michaels and the Kobes and the Shaqs and the Duncans and the Ginobilis and all the people who have been there,'' Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "You have to have that attitude to get there because it's hard as hell to win it, a championship. And you know who knows it the most is the people who have been there.''

I asked whether he finds himself obsessing on the four championships his teams have won or those they've failed to win. "You're a bad, bad person," he scolded for asking. "When the thoughts go through your head, when you're laying in bed at night or you're on an airplane, the things that drift in there more than the wins are the ones you think you gave away."

It says something about your focus, I told him.

"It says you're sick," Popovich said, smiling. "It says you're an immature child and you can't appreciate what you should appreciate in life. It says you should mature a little bit more. And you can write that."

But when you're retired and no longer trying to win every year, I said, then you'll appreciate the good work for what it was.

"Yeah, that's true," he said. "You know what I'm looking forward to? When I do walk away, for the first time I'm going to watch the tapes of those Finals games. I'm going to read some of the articles about the players and the team and all that, because I haven't read a one or watched the films -- unless I'm sitting there and they put on ESPN Classic or whatever it's called, so if something might come on, I'll watch it for five minutes. But I'm saving it as a gift for later, to watch those games and read those articles.

"So for now I don't even think about it. I don't care about them, they don't mean anything. We've got other work to do."

The losers. Twenty-nine teams won't win the title this season, and all of them will be forced to consider overhauls in hopes of improving their chances for next year. Boston's Allen offers a cautionary tale based on his 2001 run to the Eastern finals with the Bucks.

"The one thing that didn't resonate with us at the time was creating something special that's going to last for a couple of years," he said. "We thought we had to get better, and to some extent there's some truth to that because the league gets better. But we had a pretty good squad."

Yet Allen and his team focused on what so many experts and rivals said they needed -- a power forward to provide low-post scoring. After losing Game 7 at Philadelphia to send Allen Iverson's 76ers to the '01 NBA Finals, the perimeter-based Bucks would fill out their front line by acquiring Anthony Mason. It is a mistake Allen regrets to this day.

"We would practice [in the summer] and Anthony Mason was coming up to Milwaukee every day and trying to convince us that we needed him on our team," Allen said. "I was talking to him every day, and he was like, 'I can really help you guys, you guys need to talk to Ernie [Grunfeld, the Bucks' GM]. And so I was up there talking to Ernie, saying, 'He would take us over the top.' "

Allen persisted even though an older teammate warned him of the potential consequences. "On the way home from practice Ervin Johnson called me -- I remember like it was yesterday -- and he said, 'Ray, before y'all make a decision, you just need to know that when Anthony Mason comes here, he's going to need the ball, too. You, Glenn [Robinson] and Sam [Cassell] want the ball, but Anthony's going to want the ball, too, and you've got to make sure that it's not going to disrupt what we've got going on here.' And I told him, 'We'll be fine. He's going to be cool. He's not going to disrupt.' "

Of course, Johnson turned out to be right. "He started all year, and when he didn't touch it he was looking at us, and he didn't like the plays George [Karl] was calling," Allen said. "We were playing a quick style of offense, and he looked to slow it down, bang 'em -- you know how he played in New York. That was just his style of play. And if I had to do it all over again, I would listen to Ervin.''

The same debate has defined the Lakers' decision to replace Trevor Ariza from their championship team with Ron Artest this season. So far Artest has helped them in the playoffs, but there are no certain fixes. The Cavaliers' midseason trade for Antawn Jamison didn't help as many people (myself included) believed it would.

"You can't just assume it's going to be gravy or everything's going to work," Rivers said. "You need to reach out to people you know and say, 'What is this guy's reputation?' Because when you get a player that is not a good teammate, or a coach that can be a jerk, 82 games is a long time. It can be miserable if you don't like them."

If Paul Pierce opts out after the season, the Celtics will be $21.6 million under the cap. Why wouldn't LeBron sign a three-year deal with a two-year opt-out and go win two rings? Pierce says he'll retire a Celtic and would re-sign for less. Ray Allen has already said he'll come off the bench if needed. Rondo would be perfect for LeBron. Makes too much sense.-- Michael, Boston

If Pierce opts out AND the Celtics renounce his Bird rights AND they dump their first-round pick, then Boston will be $14 million under the cap with five players under contract for next season. Which means James would have to agree to take less than the max, and Pierce and Allen would face coming back to Boston for the veteran's minimum of $1.1 million. That's a tough sell, Michael.

Something tells me I'll be getting a lot of mail like this over the next month.

I heard you say on the Dan Patrick Show that LeBron may end up in Portland. How would that happen? Also, I cannot see LeBron and Dwyane Wade playing together. Their styles are just too on-ball dominant. I can't see LeBron going to Chicago even though that's the most talented team he could sign with. Why would he want to play in Michael Jordan's shadow? -- Chris, Camden, N.C.

A league insider mentioned the possibility of James' moving to Portland because owner Paul Allen will spend to win a championship. I don't see that happening ... but if it did happen, it would be by sign-and-trade. Let's say James really wanted to join Portland or Dallas. He could threaten to sign with Chicago to coerce Cleveland's participation in a sign-and-trade to send him to the West; If the Cavs think they have no hope of retaining him, then wouldn't they prefer to see him leave their conference?

There are all kinds of reasons for him to sign or not sign with any team. Chicago is a promising destination given its base of talent and the size of its market -- and we don't yet know the identity of its coach, which could make a huge difference in James' ultimate decision.

When will the Celtics' victories stop being labeled as "upsets"? This is the same team that started the season 23-5 until injuries kicked in. Doc Rivers wisely rested his starters as much as possible, extending their time on the injured list to assure fitness to play. He saved the team that started the season like champions for a time when the games could lead to a championship. Cleveland was outclassed by a TEAM, and Orlando started out no differently. No upset, my friend.-- Sam

Sam, when you are seeded No. 4 and you beat the No. 1 team, that is an upset. When you go 27-27 over the last four months of the regular season and then open with two wins on the home floor of a No. 2 team that had gone 28-3 heading into the conference finals, that is an upset.

If the Celtics go all the way, they'll become the lowest-seeded champion in 15 years. That is an upset.

There is no question that LeBron James has more talent than Dwyane Wade, but what makes him the better player? D-Wade has the intangibles that LeBron has showed that he doesn't have. LeBron has quit on the court, has not won a championship and has regressed in his leadership ability. So why would D-Wade be the No. 2?-- Lydell

Would the Heat do a straight-up trade of Wade for James? I'm sure they would. Would the Cavaliers make the same trade? I'm sure they wouldn't.

James is the bigger player. His size enables him to create more problems and makes him harder to guard and box out, and he's the more versatile defender. I think he's also a better passer than Wade -- and none of this is meant as any criticism of Wade, as there is nothing wrong with being ranked behind James.

This idea that James quit on his team is getting out of hand. He played a bad second half in Game 5 against Boston, for which I criticized him. But I don't see him regressing as a player or leader. His team in Cleveland has been under constant construction in recent years and James has been the one to quickly incorporate Shaquille O'Neal and all of their other disparate parts. He isn't blameless in their defeat this season, but his second half in Game 5 was an anomalous performance that should not define him (but should inspire him next time).

The reason Cleveland has to be nervous is because James is now going to question whether he lost because the Cavs supplied him with the wrong coach and teammates. You can argue that the responsibility for this unhappy ending is on LeBron himself, you can say he has regressed, but the fact is that he gets to make this decision in July. If he decides he has a better chance to win in Miami or Chicago or Dallas, then he's going to leave.

On assists. "That's a double-edged sword. If the ball goes in, you get the assist; if it doesn't, you don't -- and it might have been a great pass. I've never been as big on judging things on assists as other people. That has a lot to do with guys shooting the ball. Sometimes you're moving the ball great, or an individual guy is making great plays and nobody's making a shot, and you look at the end of the night and say he had three assists but then you watch film and say he could have had 12, could have had 15. And other nights he might have only made five good plays the entire night and missed a lot of people, but every time he made a pass, a guy made a shot and he's got five assists. I look at assists, but to me that's an overrated stat because it's a dependent stat -- it depends on what other people do."

On experienced teams overcoming their age in the playoffs. "What people lose sight of is the playoffs are a different deal. Age tends to show more in the regular season where you play four games in five nights, or you play six games in nine nights or something like that, and guys get a worn down and you're criss-crossing the country and the whole thing. You get to the playoffs and you're never playing back to back, you've got time off between games, your travel is much more limited and when you do travel you're in one place for three or four days. All of that stuff adds up to a lot less fatigue, and it makes it a lot easier on guys. That's why you see everybody's main guys play more minutes in the playoffs and showing fewer signs of fatigue."

On scoring inside against Boston's defensive length. "We were 8-for-20 on layups [in Game 2]. Eight-for-20 on layups. If you're going to shoot 40 percent on lay ups -- the league average is like 60 percent -- you're obviously going to have a very difficult time. And it's actually worse than that, because if you take the 8-for-20 on layups, four of them were Dwight [Howard] on dunks. He was 4-for-4. And one was Matt Barnes' breakaway where he was ahead of the crowd and dunked it.

"So on actual drives or attacking the rim with everybody except Dwight [and Barnes], we were 3-for-15 on layups. Why do you shoot 20 percent on layups? Clearly, it's because their size is coming to block and making the shots very difficult. But if people are coming to block, there's obviously other people open.

"Now, it's obviously a lot easier for me because I can stop the film and say he's open. It's a little harder on the floor. But we have to be able to make some of those plays. We can't continue to double-pump and throw up really difficult shots against them. I mean, we simply can't shoot 3 for 15 on layups and be successful."

Is Andrew Bynum healthy? He appears limited by his recent knee injury, while the Celtics' big men -- Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace especially -- have been rejuvenated. Bynum's scoring is down five points since the regular season, while Garnett's has risen by 1.9 points. If Bynum can't hold his own, then the Celtics may have a size advantage similar to that of the 2008 Finals.

The Gasol-Garnett matchup. Garnett won that duel in '08, but Gasol responded with strong post defense against Dwight Howard last season. Garnett has been as aggressive as ever in recent playoff games, while Gasol has been shooting 58.2 percent and averaging 21.0 points and 12.0 rebounds this postseason. This will be a matchup of strength vs. strength.

Will Minnesota trade up? After falling back yet again in the lottery -- they've never moved up -- the Timberwolves hold the Nos. 4, 16 and 23 picks. Will they try to package two or three of those picks in order to move up to pick Evan Turner at No. 2 or Derrick Favors at No. 3? As it stands now, they're likely to wind up with Favors or DeMarcus Cousins at No. 4. Another team that may try to trade up could be the Pistons, who hold the No. 7 pick but would love to land an athletic big man to protect the rim and provide a foundation defensively. An alternative would be to sit tight and choose Marshall center Hassan Whiteside with the seventh pick.

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