By Ian Thomsen
June 13, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- The weather really is beautiful here ...

5. Big men are still relevant. Why are the Lakers down 3-1? Because they don't have 7-foot, 285-pound center Andrew Bynum, sidelined since midseason with a knee injury. They have no one to defend the rim against penetrations or to score out of the low post.

Why are the Celtics on the verge of their first championship in 21 years? Because they've followed the lessons of their last title, when they had probably the finest front line in NBA history with three Hall of Famers 6-9 or bigger. Today's Celtics aren't so tall, but by today's standards they play abnormally large with 6-11 Kevin Garnett and 6-10 Kendrick Perkins as starters and 6-11 P.J. Brown playing off the bench (which is not to forget 6-9 Leon Powe with his impressive post-up game). In a league rife with perimeter stars feeling entitled to dribble to the basket as they please, the Celtics have nullified LeBron James or Kobe Bryant in the playoffs by converging one or more giants upon him.

Amid all the major acquisitions made this midseason, the move with arguably the biggest payoff turned out to be the Feb. 27 signing of Brown out of semi-retirement. He is about to win his first championship with the Celtics, and they probably wouldn't be so confident -- and might not be playing -- without him.

The Lopez twins, Brook and Robin, who are first-round 7-footers out of Stanford, should send a commission to Brown. Every time he so easily bullies a smaller opponent or clangs in one of his flat-line 12-footers from the seam of the defense, he and the Celtics' fleet of big men raise the value for true centers everywhere. In this copycat league, more teams may be interested in drafting the Lopezes today than a month or two ago.

4. The Lakers know what they need. Besides Bynum, they need to either trade for or sign a couple of veterans like Brown, James Posey and/or Eddie House. It's understandable that they entered the season with such a young roster, because they weren't thinking they would reach the NBA Finals this quickly -- or that Pau Gasol would be available so cheaply.

The other thing they need -- and this is tougher -- is a reliable second star to work alongside Bryant when the playoffs grow tough. Scottie Pippen sets the standard here, and neither Gasol nor Lamar Odom is close to Pippen in his ability to make big shots or defensive stops in a Finals setting. Maybe one or both will develop the necessary traits, or maybe the Lakers will need to package some of their youth for an older All-Star.

3. Paul Pierce is tough. So I knew this already: This is a guy who was stabbed nearly to death in 2000 but was back on the court within the month and played 82 games -- and averaged a breakout 25.3 points -- despite his weakened condition. So it was funny to hear talk that he was faking his Game 1 knee injury.

He was scared by that incident at first, because he has so little experience with knee injuries, then relieved that it wasn't as bad as he feared. But the feeling among some in the Celtics' camp is that Pierce has at least partially torn his meniscus and that he may need surgery after the Finals. As for refusing an MRI, he doesn't want the results haunting him.

He wants to win a title now, and deal with the injury later. In Game 3, he looked unable to move, but recovered Thursday to instigate the Celtics' record 24-point comeback. But he is doing this at less than full strength, that's for sure.

2. What Boston hasn't needed. The big worry about the Celtics has been the leadership of second-year point guard Rajon Rondo and the up-and-down play of his backup since March, Sam Cassell.

The reality has been that the Celtics have been more than OK with Rondo as their starter, and that a backup has been largely unnecessary. With Pierce, Allen and House, the Celtics have had enough handling in the backcourt. And the Lakers have failed to pressure Boston bringing the ball up the court.

1. Doc Rivers is on the verge of becoming the fourth active coach with a ring. I live in Boston, and anytime the Celtics go through a rough patch there are fans who can't wait to blame Rivers as someone lacking in X's and O's.

For starters, these critics are never able to comprehensively explain a technical strategy that would be superior. Secondly, they fail to acknowledge the importance of player motivation in the NBA. Rivers has been among the leading coaches in the league when it comes to maxing out the talent on his roster. There is so much talent that goes to waste in this league by coaches who don't know how to relate to players, but Rivers has an excellent feel for when to pressure players and when to liberate them. During the Game 4 comeback, he could be seen exhorting them -- "Don't stop believing'' -- and they listened.

"Doc is not afraid to tell us when we're messing up,'' Garnett said. "I've been around for a while and I've seen some coaches say 'the right thing.' '' By that he is referring to coaches who tell the players what they want to hear.

"He gives it to you straight,'' Garnett said of Rivers, "and he's probably one of the best motivators I've been around. He gives us hope through his words, and we believe it. We go out and we try to do what's asked of us.''

4. Who do you see as next season's Pau Gasol, the player moved for picks and cap room?-- Arjun, San Diego

Depending on the new direction taken by Bucks general manager John Hammond, Milwaukee may be interested in moving the big salary of Michael Redd, who came close to signing with Cleveland as a free agent three summers ago.

It could be an expensive Denver Nugget, whether it's Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby or Nenê (at this time I don't see them unloading a young All-Star like Carmelo Anthony at a time when his value has been reduced).

The Knicks will be looking to move any number of players, including Zach Randolph and Eddy Curry.

If the Suns fall flat, might they be looking to move some of their expensive talent?

Might free agents Antawn Jamison or Josh Smith be available in a sign-and-trade? Could a similar deal be made for a restricted free agent like Ben Gordon?

The Raptors may be willing to move T.J. Ford in order to retain restricted free agent Jose Calderon.

Jermaine O'Neal can be had, but he may first have to demonstrate he's capable of returning to the healthy production of previous years.

Is Josh Howard going to be traded? I would think new coach Rick Carlisle will want to see if he can restore his All-Star value first. I would also rule out Tracy McGrady, who is no longer vulnerable to a trade as he was in the early months of this season.

3. With Joe Dumars promising a big shakeup, which starter is most likely to get traded?-- Robert Tate, Michigan

Any of his starters is available for the right kind of deal, though the Pistons won't be interested in dumping salary without getting talent in return. They'll be looking to instill more energy and toughness, and whether that means moving a versatile and highly tradable forward like Tayshaun Prince or unloading the expiring salary of Rasheed Wallace to a contender will depend entirely on the value that Dumars can negotiate in return. I don't have the impression that he's looking to trade away any player in particular; rather that he wants to improve his title hopes by remaining open-minded to all possibilities.

2. With it now being official that Rudy Fernandez will be a Blazer next year and considering his great season in Europe this year, would he be a top five pick in this year's draft? Also, do the Blazers get rid Jarrett Jack and keep Sergio Rodriguez in order to keep Rudy happy?-- Robert, Portland, Ore.

Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard feels that Fernandez definitely would be a top 10 pick this year (the Spanish guard was the 24th selection in the 2007 draft). On a team with Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden, the Blazers would be making a mistake and setting a horrible precedent by moving players just to create opportunities for Fernandez. The Blazers are trying to build a contender, and if Fernandez can't earn important minutes, then he'll have no place in their ambitious future.

1. What's your take on the Bulls' hiring of Vinny Del Negro as coach? They went through such an exhaustive search and THAT's the guy they come up with? Who knows, he could be the next Red Auerbach, but given the fact that the Bulls are about to add the No. 1 pick to a team that made the second round two years ago, wouldn't a more experienced hand have been the better call?-- Kyle W., Newark, N.J.

I have yet to talk to GM John Paxson about this, but money was an issue after owner Jerry Reinsdorf had to pay off Bill Cartwright and Scott Skiles when they were fired with years remaining on their contracts. I'll also emphasize that the rapport with his GM is a huge factor in the success of any coach. Paxson went through an exhaustive process, and it's obvious that he hit it off with Del Negro. If they see the game the same way and are able to work together in building the team, the Bulls will be in better shape.

3. New York Knicks (picking No. 6). The Knicks are taking a hard look at Danilo Gallinari, who wants to play in New York. Coach Mike D'Antoni has a strong understanding of Gallinari's talent after playing with his father on the Italian and European champion Milan teams of the 1980s. But the Knicks have post-Stephon Marbury needs in the backcourt, which will lead to speculation about Russell Westbrook, Jerryd Bayless or Eric Gordon, depending on Donnie Walsh's assessment of their point-guard abilities. Or they may trade the pick while packaging one of their awful long-term contracts.

2. Seattle (soon-to-be Oklahoma City?) SuperSonics (picking No. 4). They appear to be focusing on a combo guard. "I don't know what to think of them,'' said a rival team executive in the lottery. "From what I've heard, they've told Gordon, Bayless and Westbrook that they're the guy.'' I'm sure the Sonics would disagree with that insinuation, but you get the picture.

1. Minnesota Timberwolves (picking No. 3). They need a center to pair up front with young star Al Jefferson, enabling him to move to power forward. Do they love Brook Lopez enough to take him with the No. 3 pick? Or do they go with O.J. Mayo instead as the best available player? Or does their ambivalence persuade them to trade back? Their dilemma is the leading example of why the upper lottery is going to be so difficult to predict.

2. They're up this year. The Finals are averaging an 8.8 rating, a 42 percent increase from last year's 6.2 for the Spurs-Cavaliers series. The ratings are still down from the Michael Jordan era as a result of more alternatives for viewers with the explosion of cable channels, Web sites and video games. But commissioner David Stern insists that the NBA audience is larger than 10 years ago due to the global access to and other sites.

"We think we have a bigger audience overall,'' Stern said. "The ratings for network television in the last four years are down 20 percent -- that's for all network TV -- and it would be unusual for sports in entirety if it were not down.

"We're up this year. But that doesn't meant we won't be down next year.''

1. The national audience for the Finals peaks at 11:30 p.m. ET, according to Stern. He was making this claim to answer complaints about the late 9 p.m. ET starts. That's when the Boston Globe's venerable Bob Ryan approached Stern. "That's why I've always said ratings are fraudulent,'' Ryan said. "That can't possibly be true.''

It turns out the ratings rise at that late hour in part because Easterners turning on their TV for the 11 p.m. news happen upon the Finals.

1. "I must say as honestly and as directly as I can, that if you have a criminal in your midst who's prepared to engage in criminal activity, whether it's the NBA, the CIA, the FBI, the armed forces, police departments or whatever, you've got a problem and you will probably be burned by it,'' Stern said Thursday before Game 4. "There are a series of recommendations that we've implemented that try to contain the situation as best we can, but there's no foolproof guarantee here that's available.''

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