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:
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
The bottom line is that the star trios of the Spurs (
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.
Second-year point guard
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.
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.
"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.''
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
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.