It was difficult to watch the Celtics and Lakers on Sunday without coming to the conclusion that there'll be a new NBA champion come June.
The Lakers look like they are falling apart. And the Celtics look like they are ready to win banner number 18.
Things can still happen, of course. A bunch of old Celtics could get hurt. Maybe another NBA superstar will take his talents to South Beach. The San Antonio Spurs have the best record in the league and folks in Dallas, Orlando and yes, even Oklahoma City think they have a chance.
But we always figure it's going to come down to Celtics-Lakers, and Sunday's game at the Staples Center revealed that the Celtics are best-positioned as the calendar turns to February.
Jerry West last week said that the Lakers are old, don't play defense, and are not going to be great much longer. We thought maybe it was just Jerry being jealous of Phil Jackson. Then we saw the Celtics destroy the Lakers, 109-96, and we realized that Jerry might be right. The Lakers looked soft. It was the NBA's Showcase Sunday, but the two-time defending champs looked like they didn't want to play.
After scoring only 71 points Friday night in Phoenix, the Celtics shot 60 percent and converted 32 assists against the standaround Lakers. Kevin Garnett repeatedly beat Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynam down the floor. Rajon Rondo had an off day, but still managed 16 assists. Paul Pierce (32 points) neutralized Kobe Bryant's one-man (41 points) show. And Ron Artest (1-10 from the floor, four rebounds) looked particularly uninterested.
It didn't matter that Shaquille O'Neal went scoreless and committed five fouls in 13 minutes for the Green. The Celtics were able to push the Lakers around with the likes of recently-returned Kendrick Perkins and bench warrior Glen "Big Baby" Davis.
This game was played seven months after the Lakers came back from a 13-point, second-half deficit to win the NBA Championship against the Celtics in Game 7. Now it looks like the traditional rivals are going in opposite directions.
The Lakers won Game 7 because they crushed Boston on the boards, 53-40 (23-8 on the offensive glass). Sunday the Celtics outrebounded the Lakers, 43-30.
Garnett's turnabout typifies what is happening to these two teams. In 2010 Garnett was too easily beaten on the baseline and on the boards. This season he is back to being the KG who helped the Celtics win the championship in 2008. He looks fully recovered from his 2009 knee surgery and opponents are no longer beating him to the basket. Garnett torched the Lakers fir 18 points and 13 rebounds. He is the biggest difference between the Celtics of 2010 and the Celtics of 2011.
The Lakers don't look like champions at this hour. They are on a pace to win 56 games and have already lost home games to Memphis, Milwaukee and Indiana. Last week they trailed Sacramento by 20 before losing by five. Artest and Derek Fisher are shooting poorly. They don't have enough beef up front, they lack depth, and they play too much isolation offense. Kobe had zero assists to go with his 41 points against the Celtics. The Lakers managed only 10 assists against Boston. Embarrassing, wouldn't you say? And this came one day after Jackson put his old guys (10 players over 30) through a 2 1/2 hour practice at their training facility in El Segundo.
It's a mistake to dismiss the Lakers based on a midseason slump. The NBA is an 82-game grind and the Celtics had some horrible stretches while winning only 50 games and earning a four seed in the East last season. Those low numbers didn't stop Boston from crushing the Heat, Cavaliers and Magic en route to the 2010 Finals. Boston might have even beaten the Lakers if not for a Game 6 knee injury to Perkins.
The Celtics like to boast that they've never lost a series with a starting five of Garnett, Rondo, Pierce, Perkins and Ray Allen (soon to be the league's alltime three-point king). They didn't have Garnett when they were eliminated in the 2009 playoffs and they didn't have Perkins for Game 7 at the Staples Center last year. It's a quintet with a lot of mileage and the trainer's room appears to be the only thing that can stop the Celtics this season.
It was all on display for the world to see Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles. The Celtics are bigger, deeper, and better than the Lakers. Doc Rivers' job is to keep his guys healthy for April, May and June. If the Celtics have all their players, they're going to be difficult to stop.