Congratulations Celtics, Now I Hate You, Too

If Game 4 was The Devastation Game, Game 6 was The Demolition Game. The Celtics demolished the Lakers in every way imaginable. The box score looks like it came from a video game where the Lakers’ were being operated by a gamer with a broken controller.

The Celtics won the battle of the boards 34-27 (14-2 offensive rebounds). They won the turnover battle 19-7, including a record 18 steals. They shot 50 percent from 3-point range, including a record-tying seven treys from Ray Allen. They held the Lakers to 42 percent shooting, while shooting 49 percent themselves. They were 32-of-37 at the line. They had 33 assists to their 43 field goals. The Lakers had just 16. And, most emphatically, they beat the Lakers 131-92 in an NBA Finals series-clinching game. If ever there was a game where one team wanted it more, this was it. And the Celtics were that team, demolishing the Lakers from the second quarter on.

The win was not shocking. Boston outplayed Los Angeles for most of this series with suffocating defense and timely offensive contributions from players up and down their roster. The blowout was a surprise, however. The Lakers went down without a fight as a four point game at the end of the first quarter quickly got out of hand.

The Celtics defense was unrelenting in Game 6, and it was the team’s calling card throughout the series and the season. In each game of the series, Boston held the Lakers to less than 20 points in at least one quarter. And the scoring droughts the Lakers suffered were never countered with defense of their own.

Defense wins champions may be a cliché, but it’s also a reality for the Boston Celtics in 2008. They made Kobe Bryant look pedestrian. They made the triangle offense stagnant. They made a flashy, fun-to-watch Lakers team look like a team playing a disjointed playground pick-up game rather than an NBA championship series.

As a Lakers fan, my mind is trained to focus on what the purple and gold did wrong, but after a demolition effort like the Celtics laid on them in Game 6, I have to be equally, albeit painfully, complimentary for the Celtics’ role in making the Lakers play out of character all series long. So congratulations to the Boston Celtics for winning the 2008 NBA Championship.

And on a personal note, I finally have a reason to justify my innate feelings toward the Celtics and Boston sports fans at large. Now I can connect with generations of Lakers fans. Congratulations, Celtics. You’re now up there on my mantel with the Yankees, Patriots, Buckeyes and Broncos. Yes, now I really hate the Celtics.

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Owning Up to the Overconfidence

What happened?

Heading into the playoffs, I wasn’t sure what to make of the Lakers. Then after losing just three games in three rounds en route to the NBA Finals, I bought in to the popular notion that this team could win it all this year. Youth? Injuries? Untested in the playoffs? I pushed all those questions aside and decided their playoff run was impressive enough to pick them to win the Finals in five games.

Meanwhile, I was high on the Celtics during the season. In fact, in the April 2 podcast, my brother Mike and I both dubbed the Celtics as the best team in the league. But after they were pushed to seven games in the first round by the Atlanta Hawks (the 37-win Hawks?!), I was skeptical enough to pick them to lose in round two. Instead, they advanced, but only after being pushed to seven games again by the Cleveland Cavaliers. It looked like their best games were in the past, and most people wrote them off against the Lakers.

As it turns out, both teams were misleading during their respective runs to the Finals. The Celtics rose to the occasion, and the Lakers shied away from the moment. Now the Celtics are the 2008 NBA champions. So let me take this opportunity to revisit my NBA Finals prediction column. It’s scary to see how the Celtics basically refuted every point of my 14-point argument in favor of the Lakes. Ouch.

1. Killer instinct
No one has put teams away like the Lakers in this postseason.

I was talking about a killer instinct in closing out a series rather than an individual game, but the Lakers never had a series lead in the Finals. They did, however, have a chance to even the series in Game 4 when they blew 24-point lead. That devastating loss was really the turning point in this series.

2. Offensive fluidity
The triangle offense is clicking right now. The Lakers are the best passing team in the league.

The offense was stagnant all series long. The ball stuck when it got dumped into the post. Passing was sloppier than it was crisp. And the triangle simply didn’t flow like the well-oiled machine it was in the first few rounds of the playoffs.

3. Balanced attack
Number 24 is the known entity. Watching different players step up each night around him is what catches other teams off guard.

Look at the two Lakers’ wins. In Game 3, Sasha Vujacic stepped up with 20 points off the bench. In Game 5, Lamar Odom stepped up to score 20 points. No one other than Bryant managed to score 20 or more in the rest of the series.

4. Education
Phil Jackson may have some unorthodox methods, but no one teaches a profound lesson quite like Phil Jackson.

The Zen Master didn’t win his would-be record 10th NBA championship as a head coach, and he didn’t deserve it. Rookie Finals coach Doc Rivers was better. He made all the right substitutions and lineup adjustments, kept his team motivated and never let his team lose sight of the prize. Jackson doesn’t deserve all of the blame, but Hall of Famer or not, he deserves his fair share of criticism.

5. Boston’s road woes
If the Lakers are able to steal one of the first two games on the road, the Celtics are in serious trouble of losing the series in five games.

It turns out the Lakers nearly lost the series in five – at home. Boston won Game 4 on the road and had their chances in Game 3 and Game 5. It was the Lakers who seemed unnerved on the road, falling behind big in Game 2 and, fatally, in Game 6.

6. Experience at point guard
Rondo has shown flashes of brilliance in the playoffs, but he’s also shown flashes of inexperience.

Derek Fisher didn’t exploit the point guard matchup. In fact, you could argue that he lost it. All three Celtics point guards had their moments. Rondo played his best game in the clincher. He filled up the stat sheet: 21 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds, 6 steals and, more importantly, just one turnover. Eddie House had 11 points – including the jumper that gave Boston its first lead – in the Celtics’ historic Game 4 comeback. Even Sam Cassell, villainized by Boston fans after poor play throughout the playoffs played well in limited minutes, including 8 points in 13 minutes in a 10-point Game 1 win.

7. A gift from Memphis
Pau Gasol’s impact on the Lakers cannot be overstated.

Perhaps Gasol’s impact was overstated. He remains a versatile, talented player, but his flaw as a soft big was exposed against the tenacious defense and fearless rebounding of Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Garnett. Perhaps Gasol will be more comfortable next year when he slides down to play power forward next to Andrew Bynum because he did not connect the dots from Mikan to Chamberlain to Abdul-Jabbar to O’Neal with his performance at center in the Finals.

8. No glaring weaknesses
The Lakers have not shown any blatant weakness for the Celtics to exploit.

They may not have shown blatant weaknesses, but the Spurs had the blueprint for containing the Lakers offense and the Celtics had the will and manpower to execute it. They made life extremely difficult for Kobe Bryant, clamping down on any space for the MVP and effectively stifled the Lakers’ high-powered offense. They also exposed the Lakers’ lack of an interior defensive presence

9. Belichick
Cheaters never win. Consider this the new curse, Boston.

I don’t know what the city of Boston did to earn three Super Bowls, two World Series championships and an NBA title in the span of six years, but I feel like the Charlie Daniels Band could sing a song about it.

10. Rebounding
This will be one of the most interesting stats to watch in this series.

It wasn’t interesting for Lakers fans; it was frustrating. The Celtics dominated the battle of the boards, especially offensively.

11. Youthful energy off the bench
The Celtics bench is veteran-laden with James Posey, P.J. Brown, Eddie House and Sam Cassell.

And that has made all the difference. Posey made huge contributions. Even if he didn’t drain several dagger threes in the series, his defense, rebounding and hustle was something that no one from the Lakers’ bench mob matched in this series. Brown played like a 38-year-old realizing this might be his last shot at winning it all, and the rest of the bench filled in admirably when they were called upon. With the exception of Sasha Vujacic in Game 3, the Lakers bench was noticeably absent from this series.

12. Allen, Ray, version 2008
Without an all-star Allen, Boston’s hopes are seriously diminished.

Fortunately for Boston, all-star Ray Allen returned just in time. His jumper was falling all series long, as he set a new Finals record for threes made in a series. You could make the argument that he even won the series shooting guard matchup versus Kobe Bryant, and no one predicted that.

13. No Boston Garden
Boston has home court advantage in the series; it’s just not the same kind of advantage it once was.

I can’t speak for what it was like to play in the old Boston Garden, but the decibel level in TD Banknorth Garden was amplified by the fact that the Staples Center was celebrified into silence in Game 3. It didn’t recover much in the other games in L.A. either. Credit the Celtics fans, fault the Lakers’ pricing out their true fans. The fact remains that the crowd pushed the Celtics to another level in Game 6, and the Lakers cracked under the pressure.

14. Talent
Match up the players down the line and the Lakers simply win more individual matchups than Boston.

Most people won’t argue this point. The Lakers’ players would probably fair better in a one-on-one tournament against the Celtics, but basketball is a team game. In this series, it was very evident that the Celtics were the better team. Their defensive rotations made it seem like they moved with one mind, one collective purpose.

*Kobe Bryant
If you didn’t catch it the first time through, the first letter in the 14 reasons spell out Kobe Bean Bryant. I figured the NBA MVP was the X-factor in the series. Commonly referred to as “the best player on the planet” and “the game’s greatest closer,” Bryant was undoubtedly the most talented player in the series. But during the six games that were actually played, he was not the best. That honor goes to Paul Pierce.

One could argue that Bryant wasn’t among the top three best performers in this series. Ray Allen was consistently good for Boston, setting an NBA Finals record with 22 made 3-pointers. And Kevin Garnett, the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, became just the eighth player in NBA history to record a double-double in each of his first six NBA Finals games.

I maintain that Bryant is the game’s best all-around player, but his less-than-great performance was more uninspiring than awe-inspiring. When combined with the 2004 Finals loss against the Pistons, this series casts a shadow over his legacy.

Bryant will turn 30 in August. The window of his prime is still open, but not forever. The Lakers believe that a healthy Andrew Bynum will result in a return trip to the Finals with a different final result. If this series taught us anything, it’s that Bryant may need that help a bit more than he – or we – ever realized.

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Lakers-Celtics Quick Hits Heading Into Game 6

  • The Celtics are +11 points in the series, but with the exception of Game 1, every game in the series has been decided by 6 points or less.

  • Kendrick Perkins is not typically going to fill up a stat sheet, but his presence in the paint bothers the Lakers’ offense and rebounding. If he can’t go in Game 6, that’s a boost for the Lakers.

  • James Posey is the type of player every championship team needs. He does all the little things in terms of key rebounds and pesky defense, and he always seems to hit dagger shots at opportune moments.

  • Chris Mihm should not see another minute of action in this series unless he’s matched up against Brian Scalabrine in garbage time.

  • Kobe Bryant has yet to have a breakout game this series. This worries Lakers fans, but it has to scare Celtics fans even more.

  • Doc Rivers is winning the coaching matchup with Phil Jackson through five games, simple as that.

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The Devastation Game: Lakers-Celtics Game 4

Unpredictability, the most beautiful thing about sports, reared its ugly head Thursday night.

At its best (think: USA Hockey, 1980), unpredictability is what helps sports enrich people’s lives. On the other hand, The Lakers coughing up a 24-point lead at home in Game 4 of the NBA Finals against their legendary rivals, is the sort of unpredictability that can temporarily paralyze the psyche of a sports fan. Call it a devastation game.

As it’s happening, the magnitude is lost on you. In the moments after the game ends, the shock of what happened lingers and you stare dumbfounded, waiting for a logical explanation. There is none. The devastation game has no rationale. That’s what drives you crazy as a fan. Nothing you did caused it. Nothing you can do can change it. Nothing anyone says can make sense of it.

All you can think is, ‘What happened?’ and deep down in your devastated heart, eventually, you realize that question is never going to be answered. Your investment has left you numb.

If you’re a diehard fan, you’ve experienced this, too. If not, understand that iehard sports fans are a unique breed: passionate, loyal and devoted. But most of all they’re invested, invested in their team.

It’s an investment of money, for sure. Each year, fans justify paying for marked-up items because it features his favorite team’s logo and colors.
It’s also an investment of time. And not just in terms of games watched. Think of the hours spent watching SportsCenter, surfing the Internet to read about the team and, of course, the time spent explaining to friends why this year is our year.

But most of all, it’s an investment of emotion. And that’s where the devastation game hits the hardest. There is no measuring stick of emotion invested in a season, but suffice it to say if you reach a devastation game, it was too much. Of course, with the onset of each new season, diehard fans again pledge their allegiance to their teams with the dream that said team will bring them joy in the form of a season full of victories and, ultimately, a championship.

And they do this knowing full well the odds are against them. It’s an incredibly unequal partnership. The fan invests money, time and emotion in exchange for what? For the hope that exists in the dawning of a new season, the intangible hope that they can overcome the odds to finish the season basking in the ecstasy that only a championship season can provide.

Ironically, the unpredictability that leads to the devastation game is the same thing that makes the investment worth it in the first place. Fans know going in, they aren’t investing in a championship. They’re investing in a journey. Ideally that journey will culminate in a championship. The fact that it so rarely happens that way makes the experience that much more memorable when it happens. The rare air at the top of the mountain is what every fan desires to breathe.

That’s why every year, before the season starts, fans talk themselves into this year and this team. They want to be on board for the championship journey from the get-go. When that train gets derailed, the true fans separate themselves from the frontrunners. The true fan hangs on for the bumpy ride knowing that a bounce back the next year will be relished having suffered through a tough ride the season before. It’s all about unpredictability.

No one foresaw the Lakers making a run at the 2008 NBA Finals when this season began. Kobe Bryant wanted out. The surrounding cast was young and untested in the playoffs.

Then the young players, most notably Andrew Bynum, Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar overachieved during the season. They acquired Pau Gasol in a trade. They whizzed through three rounds of the playoffs with only three losses and suddenly, unpredictably, the Lakers were Finals favorites against a Celtics team that had the best record in the league all season.

The ride that Lakers fans had signed up for back in October was living up to their highest hopes and greatest dreams. When success comes by surprise like that, fans are floating on a dreamlike cloud of invincibility. You hear “team of destiny” floated around a lot during these types of runs. But nothing awakens fans faster and crushes their hearts more than when that dream dies at the doorstep, unexpectedly.

Case in point: the 2007-08 Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.

This was the most devastating Lakers loss of my lifetime. Down two games to one, the Lakers had the perfect opportunity to even the series. They led by 21 after one, 18 at halftime and as much as 24 points during the game. Yet they lost. Celtics fans will remember one of the greatest comebacks in NBA history.

But I’m a Lakers fan so this was a colossal collapse, a bitter defeat. With MVP Kobe Bryant, the game’s best closer, on our side, there’s no excuse for allowing this game and that lead to slip away. It’s hard to believe it really happened that way.

What’s worse is that while this series, at 3-1 Celtics, is not technically over. The Lakers even play Game 5 at home. However, the deflated feeling lingering from that loss has Lakers fans mourning this season already and doubting that their team is feeling any differently. This was an all-time devastation game.

The 10 most devastating losses of my life as a sports fan

I’m happy to say my first sports memory was a positive one: the Lakers defeating the Pistons in the 1988 NBA Finals. I was less than 4 years old then, but I swear I remember watching those Finals on my dad’s lap. Unfortunately, I’ve endured a lot of heartbreaking sports losses since. Whereas Bill Simmons has his levels of losing, I’ve been leveled by several demoralizing defeats in my young sports fan life. The worst 10 losses I’d rather not revisit are as follows:

10. Texas Longhorns 38, Michigan Wolverines 37
January 1, 2004
The Rose Bowl

What I remember: Vince Young was exasperating to root against. He was like a video game player that had a code for constant turbo. Michigan simply could not stop him as he ran for 192 yard and 4 touchdowns and threw for 180 yards and another score. When Michigan took a 37-35 lead with 3:04 left, I had a very bad feeling that too much time was left on the clock.

9. New York Yankees 1, Oakland Athletics 0
October 13, 2001
American League Divisional Series , Game 3

What I remember: The A’s had lost in five games to the Yankees the year before. In ’01, they took the first two games in New York and came home to finish the deal. Game 3 featured the now-historic Derek Jeter flip play. If only Jeremy Giambi knew how to slide. The A’s couldn’t manage a run in this game and went on to lose the next two, blowing the series 3-2.

8. San Antonio Spurs 96, Los Angeles Lakers 94
May 13, 2003
Western Conference Semifinals, Game 5

What I remember: Robert Horry missed the shot he always makes – a potential game-winning three-pointer rattled in and out– and the Lakers furious rally from 25 points down fell two points short. Had that shot gone down, the Lakers would’ve headed back to L.A. with a chance to clinch and possibly extend their bid at a fourth straight NBA title.

7. Detroit Pistons 88, Los Angeles Lakers 80
June 13, 2004
NBA Finals, Game 4

What I remember: An incredibly frustrating series was unofficially ended in Game 4 when the Lakers lost despite 36 points and 20 rebounds from Shaquille O’Neal. Kobe Bryant shot (and shot and shot) his way to a porous 8-25 night from the field. No one gave the Pistons a chance coming into this series, which made the Lakers’ offensive struggles (averaging just 81.8 points per game) all the more mind boggling for fans.

6. Lower Merion 48, Cathedral Prep 43
March 23, 1996
1996 PIAA AAAA Basketball State Championship

What I remember: My cousin, Keith Nies, was the senior starting point guard for Prep. The other team had some highly-touted senior named Kobe Bryant. Prep held Kobe in check most of the game and led for a good portion of the game, but foul trouble hurt them.

5. Boston Celtics 97, Los Angeles Lakers 91
June 12, 2008
NBA Finals, Game 4

What I remember: It’s the cause of this column. The series isn’t technically over yet, but it sure feels like it is.

4. North Carolina Tar Heels 77, Michigan Wolverines 71
April 5, 1993
NCAA Championship Game

What I remember: The Fab Five era came to a screeching halt as Chris Webber called a timeout the Wolverines didn’t have. The Tar Heels used the ensuing technical free throws to ice the game. Webber would declare for the NBA, and Michigan basketball hasn’t been the same since.

3. Ohio State Buckeyes 42, Michigan Wolverines 39
November 18, 2006
Regular season finale for the Big Ten Championship

What I remember: Both teams entered this massively hyped game at 11-0, ranked #1 and #2 in the country. The winner would take the Big Ten Championship and earn a spot in the BCS title game. Michigan drove down the field and went up 7-0 on the first possession. And the Buckeyes just bombarded the Wolverines defense, scoring 21 straight points. They racked up more than 500 yards for the game and scored three touchdowns of 39 yards or more, effectively killing Michigan’s national championship run.

2. New England Patriots 16, Oakland Raiders 13
January 19, 2002
AFC Divisional Playoffs

What I remember: It was a fumble. I don’t care about the Tuck Rule. Anyone with eyes and a football sense – Tom Brady, Charles Woodson – knew it was a fumble. Surprisingly, this is the only game on this list where I feel my team was robbed and not simply beaten by the opposition. Years before Spygate, this is when I began hating the Patriots.

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 48, Oakland Raiders 21
January 26, 2003
Super Bowl XXXVII

What I remember: It was supposed to be a great day for me. One year after the Snow Job game, the Raiders were in the Super Bowl for the first time in my life. But on the way to the game, my car slid off the road into a snow bank. Things only got worse from there. The Raiders former coach Jon Gruden was patrolling the sidelines for Tampa Bay, and he seemed to know every play the Raiders fan. NFL MVP Rich Gannon threw five interceptions, three of which were returned for touchdowns, and Tampa Bay annihilated the Raiders in one of the most lopsided championship games I’ve ever seen.

Honorable mentions (in chronological order):

  • 1990 AFC Championship, Oakland Raiders lose vs. Buffalo Bills
  • 1994 PIAA Basketball State Championship, Cathedral Prep loses to Chester
  • 1999 PIAA AAAA Football State Championship, Cathedral Prep loses to Central Bucks West, 14-13
  • 2000 ALDS Game 5, Oakland Athletics lose vs. New York Yankees
  • 2002 ALDS Game 5, Oakland Athletics lose vs. Minnesota Twins
  • 2003 Rose Bowl Michigan Wolverines loses vs. USC Trojans
  • 2003 ALDS Game 5, Oakland Athletics lose vs. Boston Red Sox
  • 2003 Monday Night Football, Oakland Raiders lose vs. Green Bay Packers
  • 2005 NCAA Championship Game, UCLA Bruins lose vs. Florida Gators
  • 2006 NBA Playoffs, Round 1, Game 6, Los Angeles Lakers vs. Phoenix Suns
  • 2006 NBA Playoffs, Round 1, Game 7, Los Angeles Lakers lose vs. Phoenix Suns
  • 2007 Regular season opener, Michigan Wolverines lose vs. Appalachian State Mountaineers

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14 Reasons Why L.A. Will Win

The 2008 NBA Finals begin tomorrow night between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics. The Lakers have lost just three games this postseason. They are not going to lose four of the next seven. Here are 14 reasons – one for each Lakers championship – why I’m picking the Lakers to win the series.

1. Killer instinct
No one has put teams away like the Lakers in this postseason. In closeout games, the Lakers are 3-0, which includes series clinchers on the road against Denver and Utah. Their ability to finish teams is even more impressive considering their relative lack of playoff experience.

2. Offensive fluidity
The triangle offense is clicking right now. The Lakers are the best passing team in the league. With Gasol and Odom in the 4 and 5 spots, they have five capable passers in their starting lineup, making them extremely difficult to defend.

3. Balanced attack
Kobe won his MVP because he was able to do this thing this season more easily than any year since Shaquille O’Neal was traded. The talent around Kobe is what makes this Lakers team so dangerous. Number 24 is the known entity. Watching different players step up each night around him is what catches other team’s off guard.

4. Education
Phil Jackson may have some unorthodox methods, but no one teaches a profound lesson quite like Phil Jackson. His basketball schooling is unmatched by any other coach in the league, and his wisdom has helped many of these young Lakers mature quickly.

5. Boston’s road woes
If the Lakers are able to steal one of the first two games on the road, the Celtics are in serious trouble of losing the series in five games. Since the Lakers have only lost two games in a row once this entire postseason and have yet to trail in a series, they’re in good shape to return to Los Angeles with a chance to close out Boston with three straight home games at Staples Center where the Lakers are undefeated this postseason.

6. Experience at point guard
He’s received some credit, but Derek Fisher is still the unsung hero of this Lakers team. He’s the glue guy on and off the court that makes this team stick together. He has three rings and will match up against second-year point guard Rajon Rondo of the Celtics. Rondo has shown flashes of brilliance in the playoffs, but he’s also shown flashes of inexperience. Those flashes will be magnified in the Finals by Fisher, who has already faced Allen Iverson, Deron Williams and Tony Parker in this playoff run.

7. A gift from Memphis
Pau Gasol’s impact on the Lakers cannot be overstated. This team went from a good playoff team with an emerging young center in Andrew Bynum to an elite title contender with 27-year-old veteran all-star center. It doesn’t hurt that Gasol’s skill set as a versatile big man who can post, face up, shoot the mid range shot with consistency, dribble and pass makes him a perfect fit in the triangle offense.

8. No glaring weaknesses
The Atlanta Hawks were a 37-win team with no playoff experience on their front line. The Cleveland Cavaliers were LeBron James and scraps that made running an offense look like nuclear physics. And the Detroit Pistons were banged up (Billups, Hamilton) and belligerent (Wallace). The Lakers have not shown any blatant weakness for the Celtics to exploit.

9. Belichick
Cheaters never win. Consider this the new curse, Boston. Enjoy that ’07 World Series trophy because Belichick and the Patriots set the stage for a new wave of Boston heartache. First, a perfect season ends in the Super Bowl – to a team from New York! (In hockey, the Bruins even pushed the hated Montreal Canadians to seven games in round one before being pummeled 5-0 in the series finale.) And now the beloved Celtics have a resurrection season, the best record in the NBA, and an NBA Finals date with the hated Lakers. Sounds like a recipe for disaster.

10. Rebounding
This will be one of the most interesting stats to watch in this series, especially in the matchup between Lamar Odom and Kendrick Perkins. Both players are strong rebounders, although Odom does it with length and timing and Perkins with brute strength. Perkins cannot keep up with Odom’s quickness, but the 230-pound Odom wants no part of banging on the block against the 280-pound Perkins’ muscular frame.

11. Youthful energy off the bench
No one epitomizes what the Lakers’ bench gives this team quite like Ronny Turiaf. He dances. He screams. He laughs. He evens blocks a few shots, grabs a few rebounds, slams a few dunks and hits a foul line jumper now and again. The Celtics bench is veteran-laden with James Posey, P.J. Brown, Eddie House and Sam Cassell. Leon Powe and Glen “Big Baby” Davis can try to match Turiaf’s play, but they have no chance matching his passion, which rubs off on the rest of the bench brigade, especially Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar.

12. Allen, Ray, version 2008
This is not the spry young scorer fresh out of UConn. His jump shot may still look silky smooth, but his game is shaky. He’s a defensive liability, especially if asked to guard Kobe Bryant, and this playoff run has proven that his confidence is fragile. Without an all-star Allen, Boston’s hopes are seriously diminished.

13. No Boston Garden
Sorry TD Banknorth, no one wants to plant flowers in your garden. The fans may be just as passionate and just as loud, but the Lakers won’t feel the same level of discomfort that Magic and Kareem and company felt in the 80s at the old Boston Garden. Modern day conveniences will make their stay in Boston much more pleasant and their time on the court much less hectic. Boston has home court advantage in the series; it’s just not the same kind of advantage it once was.

14. Talent
Match up the players down the line and the Lakers simply win more individual matchups than Boston. And, yes, it is a team game. But there’s no question that both squads are playing great team basketball. The Lakers are just doing so with better individual talent. Their starting five is better and their next five off the bench are better. Lakers in five.

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Yes, This (NBA Finals) is About Kobe

There are many ways to measure a basketball player’s impact. And Kobe Bryant measures up pretty well against all of them.

Scoring titles? He won two of those.

MVP Awards? He has one of those.

All-Star Games? He’s played in 10 of those, winning two MVPs.

Championships? He’s won three of those, and you might have heard he’s playing for number four starting Thursday.

But there’s one measuring stick that Kobe can’t seem to live up to: Michael Jordan.

The 10-time scoring champ, five-time MVP and six-time NBA champion also played in 14 All-Star Games, winning the MVP three times, and won two gold medals in the Olympics for Team USA. (Despite being a 20th century performer, Jordan even beats Kobe in the ultimate 21st century who’s who litmus test: Google search hits. See image at right.)

Yet of all the players to earn “the next Jordan” label, no one has come close to Kobe in terms of coming close to Jordan. Harold “Baby Jordan” Miner won dunk contests. Vince Carter won dunk contests and made All-Star teams. Jerry Stackhouse even won a scoring title (in terms of total points) in 2001. But none came close to putting together a package comparable to MJ. And none won a championship.

Except Kobe.

In a recent interview with ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, Bryant tried to shrug off any comparisons to Jordan, saying, “Michael is Michael…I just want to be the best player I can be.”

And maybe that’s the way we should let it be. Because right now, Kobe Bryant’s game is top notch. He is the best basketball on the planet today. For the next 4-7 games, let’s put aside Kobe’s place in history among the greats. Those debates will surely linger on. At 29, Bryant has several good years left in him.

I wasn’t fully aware of what I was watching when Jordan won six titles in eight years, capped with that freeze-frame follow-through to seal the ’98 championship against Utah. I was 13 when Jordan hit that shot – only six years old when he beat my Lakers for his first title.

I don’t want to take Kobe’s performance for granted now. My appreciation for the game is too great not to appreciate his game. If you don’t like the Celtics or Lakers, fans of basketball, put on your color blinders for a minute. Turn the green and white and purple and gold to shades of gray and watch Kobe and company play the game at the highest level on the biggest stage in the 2008 NBA Finals.

You won’t see Jordan, but you might glimpse Jordanesque moments. That’s something you just can’t measure.

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The NBA’s Two Marquee Franchises Meet Back in the Finals

The stat was staggering when I first heard it. The Celtics and Lakers have combined to win 30 of the NBA’s 61 championships. With Boston and Los Angeles opening the 2008 NBA Finals on Thursday, the two franchises are on the verge of yet another title.

That means that in approximately two weeks the two franchises will account for exactly 50 percent of all NBA championships. Half the teams in the league have never won a championship. To put the Celtics-Lakers domination into perspective, compare the two teams against the top two from the other major pro leagues:

  • NFL
    The Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers each have five Super Bowl victories. Using any pairing, the top two NFL franchises account for less than 24 percent of all Super Bowl winners.

  • MLB
    The New York Yankees lead the way with 26 World Series Championships, followed by the St. Louis Cardinals at 10. They’ve combined to win just under 35 percent of World Series in the modern era.

  • NHL
    Dating back to 1926, when the NHL assumed control of Stanley Cup competition, the Montreal Canadians lead the way with 22 Stanley Cup Championships. The Toronto Maple Leafs have the second highest total with 13 Stanley Cups. The two teams come the closest, having won 43 percent of the NHL’s Stanley Cups. But even that number will dip slightly this year after Detroit or Pittsburgh wins the 2008 Stanley Cup

The Boston-L.A. stranglehold on the NBA Finals is equally impressive.

This is the 29th Finals appearance for the Lakers. They’ve won 14 titles. Their longest drought without a Finals appearance was nine years between their 1991 loss to the Chicago Bulls and 2000 victory against the Indiana Pacers.

For the Celtics, this is their 20th appearance. They’ve won 16 titles. This year’s berth ends their longest drought without a Finals appearance of 21 years.

Head-to-head, the Celtics are 8-2 vs. the Lakers in NBA Finals history, though Los Angeles won the last two meetings in 1985 and 1987.

Individual experience

The two franchises are steeped in NBA Finals tradition, but the players from both teams are much less familiar with the big stage.

Most of the Finals experience for the young Lakers comes from its starting backcourt of Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher. The two helped the Lakers to 3-1 series record in the NBA Finals with the Lakers earlier this decade. Also, Luke Walton was a rookie on the 2004 Lakers team that lost 4-games-to-1 in the Finals against the Detroit Pistons. The only other Laker with Finals experience is Ira Newble, who saw limited action as a member of last year’s Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs were swept by the San Antonio Spurs.

The Celtics are a veteran-led team yet they have even less Finals experience. Their only Finals experience comes from their bench. Sam Cassell, who is playing only 13 minutes per game in the playoffs, won two titles with the Houston Rockets in his first two NBA seasons, 1994-95. Backup forward James Posey won a title with the 2006 Miami Heat. And Brian Scalabrine was a little-used member of the 2002 and 2003 New Jersey Nets teams that lost in back-to-back Finals appearances.

The Celtics Finals appearance is knocking several players off the list of “playoff games without a Finals appearance.” It took Kevin Garnett 67 games. It took 57 apiece for Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. For P.J. Brown, 100 games was the magic number. Now they’ll all contribute to the next chapter of the historic Celtics-Lakers rivalry.

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