Thursday February 10th, 2011

BOSTON -- The brightest of all NBA stages is here for Ray Allen, and do the Celtics ever need him right now.

On Thursday, the supersized Lakers of Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum return to Boston, seeking to prove they can beat a title contender. But the Celtics likely will have trouble matching up in the frontcourtwon't be able to respond up front because all of their backup big men -- Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal and rookie 7-footer Semih Erden -- are injured.

Boston's long championship-preview weekend concludes Sunday afternoon with a visit by the Heat, who will find the Celtics are not fully equipped to deal with LeBron James. The frightening bruised spinal cord suffered last weekend by Marquis Daniels has left Boston without a backup at small forward.

"When Paul [Pierce, the Celtics' starting small forward] goes out, someone's going to have to guard LeBron,'' coach Doc Rivers after practice Wednesday. "And we don't have that someone. So that means we're going to have to start trapping. ... I've been here seven years and you've seen me trap probably 10 times.

"But we are going to have to start trapping, which weakens your defense. I hate it. But we worked on it today, and we're going to work on it every day until we get another 3."

Enter Allen, who needs two conversions to surpass Reggie Miller (who will be announcing the Lakers-Celtics game courtside for TNT) as the all-time leader in three-pointers. Allen has always been crucial to Boston, and his role will be emphasized not only because of his imminent achievement but also because his team needs extra help.

"It depends on whatever we can get away with," Rivers said of filling in for Daniels, who is expected to be sidelined for at least one month. "We can go with two smalls, with Ray at the 3, but it puts us in a terrible spot. Going into the year, that was the area of concern because we knew we were one injury away from being very thin. And unfortunately it happened."

The Lakers will feel no sympathy. They've been notoriously ineffective against the best opponents -- a trend extended by the Celtics' 109-96 victory Jan. 30 in L.A. -- and they need to exploit Boston's weaknesses. The Lakers will surely attempt to overwhelm center Kendrick Perkins, who has averaged 26.4 minutes since returning from the knee injury that sidelined him since Game 7 of the Finals last June.

Yet, the Lakers' own center has been confronted by rumors of a potential trade. Will Bynum be moved to Denver for Carmelo Anthony? The Lakers have shot the notion -- "I haven't given it a second thought," coach Phil Jackson insisted -- perhaps because Anthony would force them to take on a new style of play as he and his friend Kobe Bryant learned to share the ball. Maybe they truly value the unassailable size advantage they have in Bynum, Gasol and Odom. Maybe the Nuggets aren't sold on the potential of Bynum, who is guaranteed $31 million over the next two years and has been blighted by knee injuries.

Much is in flux this weekend, and the results of Boston's games against the Lakers and Miami will be hard to gauge as we look ahead to the possibility of the Celtics meeting the Heat in the conference finals before rekindling their NBA Finals rivalry with L.A. One thing the Celtics understand is that both the Lakers and Heat (who are 0-2 vs. Boston this season) would enjoy punishing them, even as Allen's career is being celebrated by his record achievement.

Rivers is in favor of being done with Allen's record sooner than later.

"My suggestion is to allow him to have two open shots, just to get it over with," he said. "Either that, or to give him a game-winning, wide-open [three]. I would take either option."

Now let's move on to some of your questions from the mailbag and Facebook ...

When are people going to accept the inevitable -- that Chris Paul is back on top of the PG mountain? He has become the master of efficiency, and should be right up there with LeBron/Rose in the MVP race. -- Ben, South Wales

This is the most open-ended MVP race in years. LeBron James is the favorite, but the pack close behind includes Paul, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Deron Williams, Amar'e Stoudemire, Zach Randolph (now that Memphis is back in playoff contention) and Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker (take your pick). He who lifts his team the highest over the remaining two months will be positioned to challenge James' two-year hold on the award.

You're right about Paul, who has adapted his style, improved his shooting to an elite level and maintained leadership of the streaky Hornets even as they were losing 15 of 25 games into early January. Is he the league's best point guard? Every week a different player seems to be winning that race.

Given the Lakers' apparent interest in making a trade, why hasn't CP3's name come up? The Lakers are on his preferred list of destinations, and L.A. could build an interesting package around Shannon Brown and Andrew Bynum. Throw in a couple of first-round picks, and it's at least something to think about for the Hornets. -- Ian, Plover, Wis.

Paul isn't going to be traded by the NBA. That would raise questions of sabotage of the New Orleans market and preferential treatment for the Lakers, who would not be providing the Hornets with equal value for their franchise star. The Lakers will be looking for a younger star to take over for Bryant, but now is not the time to mess with a formula that has produced two championships. As poorly as they've played against the best opponents so far, I still view them as the team to beat.

Has there ever been a starting lineup with more career All-Star selections than the Celtics this year when Shaq is starting? Combined they have 50 selections, or 10 per player. -- Michael, Richmond, Va.

I don't see how any other team could have assembled so many, Michael. Shaquille O'Neal is second all time with 15 selections, and Kevin Garnett has 14 -- no two teammates have ever combined for more All-Star games. Then Ray Allen (10) and Paul Pierce (9) separate these Celtics from other celebrated rosters like the 1988-89 Lakers, who had 32 among Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (19), Magic Johnson (nine at that time) and James Worthy (four); or the veteran-laden 1987-88 Celtics of Larry Bird (eight), Robert Parish (seven), Artis Gilmore (six), Dennis Johnson (five), Kevin McHale (four), Jim Paxson (two) and Danny Ainge (one).

If anyone can come up with a more accomplished group, please let me know.

Are the Blazers ever going to win a championship? Seven knee surgeries since July, plus Joel Przybilla's and Greg Oden's before that. Our future is down the tube, yet we're not bad enough to have a realistic shot at a really high draft pick to get another franchise player to help LaMarcus Aldridge. Brandon Roy's done; Nicolas Batum plays superb defense but needs to work on his outside shooting, which makes him a third banana at best; the Blazers' training staff specializes in ruining careers; and our owner (Paul Allen) only cares about the bottom line and thus lets accountants run the team. Was '77 our one shining moment? -- Kyle, Salem, Ore.

Allen historically has been among the NBA's biggest spenders, and I'm sure if a move could be made to bring a champion to Portland then he would ante up, no matter the cost. Everyone knows the Blazers made risky picks -- they stopped risking on character and started risking on health -- which makes it extremely unfair to blame their training staff, which inherited a number of pre-existing conditions.

Let's say Roy, who's on the verge of a comeback after undergoing surgery on both knees less than a month ago, proves to no longer be a franchise star. I wouldn't dismiss the possibility of his becoming a point guard. So I wouldn't say he's all washed up. But I hear you -- if Roy and Oden aren't stars, then who will help Aldridge? Because I agree with your assessment of Batum as a strong complementary piece.

But three-fourths of the NBA faces similar issues because there are so few players capable of leading championship teams. Do you think maybe, in hindsight, you overrated the Blazers' title chances after they drafted Oden?

What was Otis Smith thinking trading Rashard Lewis for Gilbert Arenas? I understand the Vince Carter move; Gilbert is horrible. -- Andrew, via Facebook

The Orlando GM knew his team couldn't win as it was. I don't believe Arenas is finished physically. He has been trying to fit in, and he hasn't looked good because he doesn't know how to run a system. It's not the hardware; it's the software. Don't judge the trade yet, Andrew. It's too early.

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