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 MattHubert.com 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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