As a coach, Phil Jackson wins championships in threes. His Chicago Bulls won three in a row from 1991-1993. The second three-peat took place between 1996 and 1998. When he changed scenery to Los Angeles, the Lakers won from 2000 to 2002.
The current Lakers have won back-to-back titles. Do they have what it takes to continue the Zenmaster’s trend?
Jackson’s Bulls and Lakers never played in four straight NBA finals. If these Lakers make it to the championship round again that will mean more than 100 games played for four consecutive years.
That type of fatigue will take its toll on any human, even professional athletes. Too much sweat even for the champs. In about 1,460 days the Lakers will have played more than 400 games. That doesn’t include preseason games, practices, morning shootarounds, weight room sessions, media appearances and offseason workouts.
Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol also played extensively in international play and the Olympics in 2008. Lamar Odom plans to play in the FIBA World Championship later this summer.
Where’s the rest?
The Health of Andrew Bynum
If he’s healthy, the Lakers are unstoppable. During their three years in the finals, Bynum was never 100 percent.
Against the Celtics in 2008 he wasn’t even active. Last season against the Magic, Bynum was coming off a regular season injury. This year, he missed a handful of games to finish the year and was hobbled during the playoffs. Bynum had his knee drained during the NBA finals and played just enough to squeak through the championship.
Bynum had impressive numbers during the regular season. The Lakers need his size, rebounding and ability to block or change shots. Without him, they have a gaping hole at center. Gasol could fill in admirably, but his natural position is power forward.
Lack of Depth
Whenever money becomes an issue it could change the dynamic of the team. Certainly, that will be the case with the Lakers. They have many free agents.
The team’s core will be intact, but what about the role players? Those are a serious question mark.
They have no point guards as Derek Fisher, Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar may all be gone. DJ Mbenga, Josh Powell and Adam Morrison aren’t in the Lakers’ future.
Brown recently announced he would opt out of his two-year deal.
Will Los Angeles be able to field a team? Which brings the next obstacle …
They Won’t Get Better
The Lakers have had the best eight-man rotation in the league the last two years. Bryant, Gasol, Bynum, Odom, Ron Artest, Fisher, Farmar and Brown delivered two straight titles.
The only change from the ‘09 championship was at small forward. Trevor Ariza was a slasher who could hit open shots and defend the perimeter. Artest wasn’t the same type of offensive player, but his brute strength helped the Lakers match Boston’s physicality.
So will they get better? Probably not. They need backcourt help and an experienced big man. A three-man rotation of Bynum, Gasol and Odom works — if neither of them are in foul trouble or injured. A fourth frontcourt player is needed.
Not improving their roster will only diminish the Lakers’ chances of winning another title. In 2003, the Lakers did nothing to improve their stock which led to them getting stopped by the San Antonio Spurs in the second round. Not adding quality players will only help the rest of the league catch up.
The NBA Will Get Better
During the Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe years the NBA was chasing the Lakers. The same thing is happening again. Through trades, free agency and sheer willpower, the rest of the league — the Western Conference especially — has to catch up.
The only question is when. What team has the best chance to knock off the Lakers? Boston might be too old, Phoenix and Cleveland could lose Amare Stoudemire and LeBron James, and Oklahoma City is still a bit green. Some team will step its game up.
Jackson has announced that he wants to return to the Lakers. But will a coach make up the difference if the Lakers’ talent isn’t the same?
Los Angeles’ run has to end some time. It might be next year.
When Boston comes back to Los Angeles to try to clinch the NBA finals there is a chance for victory. Sure, the Lakers have a tremendous record at home. They almost set an NBA playoff record for most consecutive wins at home.
But don’t attribute that to the fantastic crowd. Had they been playing in a neutral court similar results may have taken place.
This wasn’t always the case for the purple and gold. During the creaky Great Western Forum days (that dump was once state of the art) fans howled in unison at Showtime. Magic, Kareem and James Worthy kept the crowd involved all game long.
At one time Staples Center harnessed great Lakers energy. When it first opened, fans were treated to three straight championships. Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and whoever the other three players on the court were amazed the fans.
They were loud. Very loud, especially when the Lakers needed the noise the most: game seven of the 2000 Western conference finals against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Real Lakers fans will remember this game. Before the tip-off the crowd was up. They chanted defense on the opening possession. Loudly. And they needed it against Portland, one of the most loaded teams never to win a championship. That team was so stacked their second unit probably could have won 50 games.
Their roster consisted of ballers such as Scottie Pippen, Rasheed Wallace, Steve Smith, Damon Stoudemire, Brian Grant, Arvydas Sabonis, Greg Anthony, Bonzi Wells, Stacey Augmon and Detlef Schrempf. A young Jermaine O’Neal was also on that team and he wasn’t even in the rotation.
In that game seven, Portland had a 16-point lead in the third quarter. The Staples crowd kept the faith, the Lakers tightened up on D, Portland went almost eight minutes without a point in the fourth quarter and Los Angeles came back.
That game finished with one of the most iconic plays in NBA history as Kobe beat Pippen off the dribble and alley-ooped a pass to Shaq for one of those demoralizing dunks.
The crowd throughout all of this stayed strong. After Shaq’s dunk they went into a ridiculous frenzy. Can the Staples Center crowd do the same for game six and maybe, game seven against the Celtics?
It seems as if the Staples Center ticketholders are growing more timid with each year. How can this be? The Lakers have the most talent in the league led by Kobe and the Spanish Jesus, Pau Gasol. They’ve played in three straight NBA finals. They won four championships in the last decade.
The almighty dollar has silenced Lakers fans. Only the rich or the truly lucky or truly stupid can afford to go to Lakers games. Insane ticket prices keep the real fans out.
So who gets in? Celebrities who are more concerned with getting on camera. Whoever has the newest movie, E from Entourage and the Kardashians. Only Kim deserves courtside seats. Corporate types. Businessmen who wear suits to work every day. People who live off mommy and daddy’s money.
Are these the guys who should be cheering for the Lakers to defeat the hated Celtics? Is this who the Lakers want when they have their backs to the walls and must win two home games in a row?
These fakers are no better than the bandwagoners who update their sudden love for the Lakers on Facebook (which happen to begin around playoff time), go to bars and rock their brand-new Lakers gear.
They claim to be fans but can’t even remember the lean Randy Pfund years, the angst of losing to the Celtics for decades or even a rough East Coast trip this season.
This is the time Staples Center needs to support the Lakers the most. Look at the Boston crowd. They’re jacked well before the game starts. The Los Angeles crowd, they don’t seem to give a damn, and if that’s the case they will be rewarded with another Celtics championship on the Lakers home floor.
For the Los Angeles Lakers, it was Kobe Bryant. He scored 29 points, but struggled from the field (10 out of 29). He also had seven rebounds and four assists. Bryant continually saved the Lakers, swishing buckets late in the shot clock.
But he needed help in the Lakers’ 91-84 win.
It came in the form of Derek Fisher. The Lakers’ 35-year-old starting point guard, often matched up against lightning quick, young guards, helped the Black Mamba just enough.
Well, more than enough as Bryant scored just four points in the fourth quarter leaving D-Fish to pick it up. Fisher came through with 16 points, 11 of them in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t a groundbreaking game at all, but someone else needed to shoulder the scoring load.
If Kobe was the superhero, Fisher helped some. He was Robin to Kobe’s Batman. See, Robin’s important too.
“I’m always excited for him when he does it,” Bryant said. “He’s been criticized quite a bit for his age. It’s a huge thrill for him and for all of us to see him come through in these moments. But truthfully, he’s done it over and over and over again. It’s almost his responsibility to our team to do these things.”
Points came at a premium as both teams went through dry spells. Fisher, however, was hot in the fourth. He shot five for seven and sealed the game with a three-point play by driving to the basket where three Celtics hammered him. The play stretched the Lakers’ lead to seven points with 48 seconds left to play.
“He won the game for them,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “Derek Fisher was the difference in the game. He’s just a gutty, gritty player and he gutted the game out for them. I thought Kobe was struggling a little bit, and Fisher — he basically took the game over. I don’t know what he had in the fourth quarter … but most of them were down the stretch.”
The Lakers’ victory in Boston was their first since Magic Johnson hit his famous baby hook in 1987.
The Celtics got the Kevin Garnett of old back. The Big Ticket notched 25 points and six rebounds. This was Garnett’s breakout game, but he didn’t have help.
Paul Pierce struggled once again, scoring 15 points on five for 12 shooting, but his play was sporadic because of foul trouble.
Ray Allen, who broke an NBA finals record with eight three pointers, had no baskets. Zip, a fat doughnut. Allen was zero for 13 from the field and finished with two points (free throws).
Allen had the second worst shooting night in NBA finals history, narrowly missing the record set by Baltimore’s Chip Reiser and Seattle’s Dennis Johnson. They shot 0-14 in 1948 (against Philadelphia) and 1978 (against Washington), respectively.
Game four of the NBA finals is Thursday.
But Ray Allen’s three-point shot was pretty as was Rajon Rondo’s all-around game, which is why Boston took the homecourt advantage from the Lakers in game two of the NBA finals.
Allen hit an NBA finals record eight three pointers on his way to 32 points. Rondo had another triple double (19 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists) and made all the plays down the stretch to preserve the Celtics’ win.
Game two was tough for both teams and neither side could be pleased with officiating. Like game one, there were 58 foul calls. Boston’s entire frontline — the bench included — had foul trouble the whole game. The Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom also played with foul trouble, severely limiting their minutes.
Bryant played just 34 minutes and Odom 15. Celtics forward Kevin Garnett logged 24 minutes and for the second consecutive game played subpar. He scored six points and grabbed four rebounds, but he dished six assists. Odom also struggled in his second straight game with three points and five rebounds.
The Lakers played tough again, going to the free throw line 41 times. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum had their way with the Celtics. The two combined for 46 points and 14 rebounds. Bynum blocked seven shots and Gasol had six. Los Angeles had an NBA finals record 14 blocked shots.
“Our big guys played great,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “We didn’t get the ball often enough to them, or in a good enough position many times, and a lot of our outside shooting was not that (good). … In a sequence like this, there’s no doubt it’s a blow to us to lose the homecourt, but we anticipated this might happen, and we’re just going to have to go pick it up.”
Bryant simply didn’t play enough minutes to find a rhythm and close the game out. He had a balanced game — 21 points, five rebounds, six assists and four steals. But in a tight contest such as this he would play more than 40 minutes. Two of his foul calls were extremely questionable, especially a phantom one in which Rondo stole the ball and lost his balance out of bounds.
The Celtics also had some tough whistles go against them. Their big men stuffed some Lakers drives to the basket, but more often than not a foul was called. Boston’s forwards and centers were in such foul trouble seldom-used backup Sheldon Williams played four minutes.
Los Angeles’ loss was the first of the playoffs at home. When the Lakers played the Celtics in 2008, Boston won a game in Los Angeles; that loss was also the Lakers’ first at home in the playoffs.
Rondo did damage in the fourth quarter with 10 points. He also blocked a shot by Derek Fisher to ignite a fastbreak. Rondo’s play combined with Allen’s deadly three-point shooting were enough to avoid a 2-0 NBA final deficit. Boston now has the next three games at home.
The Los Angeles Lakers grew up like Kevin and hammered the Boston Celtics in game one. No longer was Wayne able to headlock Kevin at will or tease him about girlfriends while on the phone. The scoreboard didn’t reflect the beatdown the Celtics received. But the points in the paint, rebounding and second-chance points did.
The Lakers scored 48 points in the paint while the Celtics had 30. Boston was also outrebounded by the Lakers, 42-31. Of those rebounds Los Angeles grabbed 12 offensive boards and the Celtics were held to eight.
Those are not staggering stats, but this next one is: the Lakers had 16 second-chance points. The Celtics had none. No accidental tip-ins. No offensive rebounds for dunks. No long rebounds that led to three pointers. Every Celtics possession that ended in a missed shot meant no points. At all. Usually someone gets a garbage bucket at least. No trash delivery in game one.
Boston, which prides itself on its toughness, was out-toughed. The game was actually played at the Celtics’ tempo. Slow, a lot of foul calls (54 whistles between both teams), no real rhythm to the contest. Boston actually shot more free throws than Los Angeles, 36 to the Lakers’ 31.
“Well, it wasn’t the prettiest basketball game I’ve ever watched in my life,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
All the muscle in game one was flexed by the Lakers’ starting frontline. Pau Gasol led the way with 23 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks. Gasol’s 14 rebounds equaled the rebounding effort of Boston’s bigs. Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, Rasheed Wallace and Glen Davis snatched 14 rebounds combined.
“On Kevin’s part, he’s also lost some explosiveness,” Gasol said. “He’s more of a jump shooter now you could say, comes off the lane. Before he had a really, really quick first step and was getting to the lane and he was more aggressive then. Time passes and we all suffer it one way or another, but he’s still a terrific player, a terrific competitor, and he’s going to bring everything he’s got. You can count on that.”
Center Andrew Bynum, who didn’t play in the 2008 NBA finals, chipped in with 10 points and six rebounds, not spectacular numbers by any means. But he doesn’t have to put up huge numbers. Bynum’s size clogs the lane for the Celtics and provides the Lakers with the luxury of bringing Lamar Odom off the bench.
Finally, there was Ron Artest, Thug No. 1, the guy you want on your team, but you don’t want to play against. How tough was he? Only 27 seconds into the game he got into a wrestling match that Stone Cold Steve Austin would have been proud of with Paul Pierce. Both players went to the ground and were called for double technical fouls.
Although the Lakers played Godzilla to the Celtics’ King Kong, Boston should have a better effort in game two. After suffering their own smackdown they are almost certain to come out more aggressive in the next game. Ray Allen didn’t play many minutes because of foul trouble and Rajon Rondo got stuffed every time he ventured near the basket.
Boston hit one three pointer. If some more of those go down, it will be a close game.
The Celtics may feel like Wayne Arnold, overshadowed at his sudden inability to punk little bro, but they must flex their own muscle if they want to make this a series. It’s no secret that the Lakers have star players at almost every position, but it was the Celtics rugged defense that got them back to the finals.
Wayne Arnold must stand up to the challenge of Kevin Arnold. Kevin may be bigger now. So what, Wayne must say. Wayne, er, Celtics, show that you’re tough too.
I came to a revelation. The Lakers were grossly over matched in 2008. I just didn’t see it then. Let’s start with Paul Pierce in the first game. If you recall he broke his knee. So much so that he had to be carted off with a look of despair and pain. He grimaced like he had been shot in the leg. But then as if a brilliant ploy, of which I am sure there was none, he comes out of the locker room skipping. Pierce basically came out like Daniel Laruso in Karate Kid. Although please recall Laruso was limping after. Pierce was not. So the Lakers lose the match up between athletic trainer Gary Vitti and whatever magical potions and/or small Japanese janitors they have behind their locker rooms in Boston.
We also lacked depth. Ronny Turiaff was in the game with the Lakers down six in the fourth quarter in game 1. That is my only argument.
I also realized that the finals are quite over before they even start. To prove this all one has to do is witness the glory and splendor that is NBA officiating. Its the only sport that it’s audience brazenly declares that you get “calls” at home. Where in any sport is this so prevalent. A foul is a foul and it is only less of a foul if you are a home team in the NBA. The Lakers have four games at home this series.
So who wins? With questions on one side about injuries and the other about age, this series will come down to who has to go deep into their bench early and often. If Brian Scalabrine gets more minutes in the series than Adam Morrison then the Lakers are looking good. Here is to hoping Morrison keeps on those warm-ups.
June 17, 2008, final score, Celtics 131, Lakers 92. Not even the Memorial Day Massacre in 1985 was this bad — at least the Lakers won that series against Big. No, that disgusting 2008 score solidified Boston’s completion of a defensive masterpiece, a return to glory and another black eye for their West Coast rivals.
In that series two years ago the Lakers were on the verge of tying the series. They had an 18-point halftime lead (at home) and led by as many as 24 points. The Celtics, however, clamped down on defense, holding the Lakers to only 33 points in the second half.
That was the series. Los Angeles won a meaningless game five, but it was only a matter of time until Boston closed it out.
Since that victory I have dreamed of this rematch. When the Lakers won the title last year I wasn’t satisfied. Who cares about beating Dwight Howard and a bunch of also-ran NBA players? The only way for a championship run to be complete would be to defeat the Celtics in the NBA finals.
It didn’t seem as if the Celtics had the hunger to make it back to the championship round. Some experts had them losing in the first round. But they hit the switch and D’d up in the playoffs.
I say good. Bring it, Boston. I knew with a healthy Andrew Bynum the Lakers could match the Celtics’ physicality. It was no coincidence the Lakers vs. Celtics game on Christmas 2008 was one of the most hotly contested regular season games in recent years. With a healthy lineup the Lakers won, snapping the Celtics’ franchise-record 19-game winning streak.
Now that these teams are finally matched up I am relieved. I don’t take the Celtics lightly. They are a veteran team that will muck up the scoreboard and keep games close with their defense. I am relieved because the Lakers have the chance to defeat these guys in the finals.
Beating Cleveland or Orlando just wouldn’t matter.
For the Lakers, this will be about redemption. Very few times do teams get a chance such as this. As a hardcore Lakers fan I cherish championships and mourn missed opportunities.
Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton and Karl Malone won’t have a chance to play the Detroit Pistons, a team I think was the worst to ever win the championship.
The 1998 team with its four All-Stars of Shaq, Kobe, Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel can’t play the Utah Jazz with the John Stockton-to-Malone connection.
Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, sorry guys, you don’t get a do-over for game seven at home against the Celtics. That loss hurt badly; it was the only time the Lakers have lost a seven-game series when holding a 2-0 lead. The Lakers’ owner, Jack Kent Cooke, was so confident his team would win the 1969 finals he planned an elaborate postgame celebration with thousands of balloons in the rafters and even a marching band.
The Celtics won that game, the only time a road team has won game seven in the NBA finals. Had I been alive for that loss I might have been borderline suicidal.
For two years I have told anyone who would listen the only way to make a Lakers’ championship complete would be to defeat Boston in the finals. I never thought it would happen. Sure, the Lakers would take care of business, but the Celtics … this was very unlikely. Now that it’s here I’m giddy.
I hope this is a tough series. Although a four-game sweep would please me, I know it is unlikely. No, the best revenge would be one in which the Celtics think they have a shot then they get their hearts ripped out by a Kobe jumpshot or a series of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum dunks.
Boston, to quote Ric Flair, to be the man, you gotta beat the man. Right now the Lakers are that man, they have the championship belt that you guys covet so much. This year, I don’t see the Larry O’Brien Trophy shipping off to Boston.
Lakers regular season record: 57-25
Celtics regular season record: 50-32
Season series tied 1-1
Jan. 31 Lakers 90, Celtics 89
Feb. 18 Celtics 87, Lakers 86
Road to the Finals
Lakers defeat Oklahoma City Thunder, 4-2
Celtics defeat Miami Heat, 4-1
Lakers defeat Utah Jazz, 4-0
Celtics defeat Cleveland Cavaliers, 4-2
Lakers defeat Phoenix Suns, 4-2
Celtics defeat Orlando Magic, 4-2
The Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics renew their rivalry as the NBA finals tip off on Thursday. These teams have won the last two NBA titles with the Celtics hoisting the trophy in 2008 while the Lakers are the defending champions.
Although the Lakers are the team to beat they have a lot to prove after dropping the 2008 series. Their toughness was questioned, but they rallied to win the title. But it didn’t come through Boston, the Lakers’ nemesis who has denied them championship glory so many times.
This will be the 12th time the Lakers and Celtics play for the title; Boston has won nine times.
Why should it be any different this year?
Los Angeles has too much championship experience. This is its third straight appearance in the finals. Boston is on its last leg. The Celtics were a little long in the tooth when they won in 2008. Now, they are two years older and a slight step slower.
But the overwhelming difference will be Kobe Bryant. If he wasn’t considered an all-time great before this year, a fifth championship should solidify a spot.
Bryant torched the Suns in the Western conference finals. He should do the same to the Celtics, who don’t have the athletic James Posey to guard him.
Of course, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher will help. Ron Artest will harass Paul Pierce as best as he can.
The Celtics will try to win with defense, rebounding and nastiness in the paint. They banged the Lakers around in 2008 and have bullied their way past the other East contenders this year.
Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis and Rasheed Wallace will be the big men who will try to impose their will against the Lakers’ frontcourt.
Rajon Rondo will run the show for Boston. He’s no longer just another guy on the team. Rondo has matured into the type of player who can dominate games, filling up the stat sheet with rebounds and assists. His scoring has improved, but his outside shooting can still be suspect.
Ray Allen must knock down jumpers to give the Celtics a chance. Pierce must do the same. His effort in the 2008 finals earned him MVP of the series.
This time, however, the Lakers will counter with more muscle. Andrew Bynum sat out the entire playoffs when the Celtics won. Los Angeles probably could have used a 7 foot starting center against the physical Celtics.
And Artest is too strong a defensive player to let Pierce have his way. Pierce will still get his, but he’ll work hard to score.
The Lakers added toughness and the determination of Bryant will be the difference in this series. Expect dirty, low scoring games with Bryant finishing off games in the clutch.
Lakers in six games.
It seemed unlikely about a month ago. Boston struggled to win 50 games during the regular season and Los Angeles went through the motions to earn the No. 1 seed. The Celtics didn’t look strong and the Lakers seemed primed for an upset.
Dwyane Wade and the underwhelming Miami Heat appeared to be capable of beating Boston while the Lakers were pushed to the limit by the strikingly athletic Oklahoma City Thunder who had virtually no playoff experience.
These teams would be on the brink of the NBA finals? Not Cleveland, who crushed the NBA during the regular season? Or Orlando, who sported a mighty 8-0 record in the playoffs? What about Dallas, wasn’t this supposed to be its year?
During the second round the Lakers and Celtics beefed up their game. Los Angeles pounded undermanned Utah in four games while the Celtics pulled off the upset against Cleveland.
We’re about to be treated to a rematch of the 2008 NBA finals, which was a quick throwback to the Lakers-Celtics rivalry that has been going on for decades.
But wait, the rematch isn’t complete. Not yet.
After the Celtics took the first two games against the Magic in Orlando it would be difficult to imagine Boston not making it to the NBA finals. The Celtics need two more wins to advance and three of the next four games are in Boston.
Forward Paul Pierce has rediscovered his game. He’s averaging 25 points per contest. It helps that he doesn’t have to work as hard on the defensive end this series; trying to check LeBron James will wear anybody out. Pierce knows it’s important to maintain the homecourt advantage the Celtics took from the Magic. They can’t get complacent and he thinks the fans won’t let them either.
“Our fans aren’t going to let us relax,” Pierce said. “You all not going to let us relax. We’re going to try to close this out in two games. You all hear me? We’re coming home to close it out.”
Orlando is too good of a team to get swept. The Magic should split in Boston. Then again, they probably shouldn’t have lost the first two at home.
The Lakers, however, have toyed with the dwarfish Phoenix Suns. The Suns simply don’t have the size to stand up to the Lakers and it has showed in two games. Phoenix doesn’t play much defense, but giving up 128 and 124 points in the Western conference finals won’t win many playoff series.
In game one Kobe Bryant torched Phoenix for 40 points. So the Suns adjusted and tried to take the ball out of Bryant’s hands by double-teaming him. That didn’t work either as the Black Mamba dished 13 assists, equaling the most by a Laker in a playoff game since Magic Johnson in 1996.
Someone had to pick up the scoring in game two and that was power forward Pau Gasol who had 29. Gasol scored 14 points in the fourth quarter as the Lakers pulled away. Phoenix big man Amare Stoudemire is having a hard time scoring and rebounding against the Lakers’ bigs.
Stoudemire didn’t give credit to Lakers forward Lamar Odom who went for 19 points and 19 rebounds in game one. “I’m not giving him no hype right now; he had a lucky game in game one,” he said.
Odom lucked out again in game two with 17 points and a game-high 11 rebounds.
Maybe the rest of the Lakers frontline will keep getting lucky. Phoenix needs to win two straight to avoid elimination.
It’s an uphill climb for Orlando and Phoenix. If these two played in the finals it would be a fine series, but lack the earth-shaking force of Lakers vs. Celtics. Good thing we only have to wait about a week until that series is finalized.
The Lakers, last year’s top team, finished 11 games better than the No. 2 seed. This season, all eight playoff teams are jumbled together and the Lakers’ aura of invincibility has vanished.
A look at the first round match-ups:
1. Los Angeles Lakers vs. 8. Oklahoma City Thunder
The defending champs have underachieved all year long, but they still finished with the West’s top record and will have home court advantage in every series unless they play Cleveland or Orlando in the NBA finals. The Lakers have the most talent in the league, but that matters little to the upstart Thunder.
Led by scoring champion Kevin Durant (30.1 points per game), Oklahoma City won 27 more games than it did in 2009. The Thunder has very little playoff experience and their two best players, Durant and former UCLA guard Russell Westbrook, have none.
Oklahoma City will play the Lakers tough, but their lack of frontcourt depth and inexperience will doom them in the end. Even though the Lakers played poorly down the stretch, it shouldn’t matter to a team loaded with players at every position. Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and the rest of the champs should win in five or six games.
4. Denver Nuggets vs. 5. Utah Jazz
Both of these team showed flashes of brilliance this year, but when every Western conference playoff team wins 50 games or more, somebody has to take the dreaded No. 4 vs. No. 5 slots.
Denver has the frontcourt depth to be a West power and has fantastic skill players in Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups. The Nuggets held their own against the Lakers in last year’s Western conference finals, but with coach George Karl’s absence the past few weeks because of cancer treatment the team has faltered. They just don’t look as threatening as last year’s club.
Point guard Deron Williams, the most complete player in the league at that position, leads the Jazz. Power forward Carlos Boozer is a bruising player in the paint and coach Jerry Sloan’s teams always play tough. This is a difficult series to call, especially since both teams, at times, looked as if they could make a run at the conference finals. Utah in six games.
2. Dallas Mavericks vs. 7. San Antonio Spurs
Is this the last stand for the Spurs? They have gotten older and wiser, mostly older, but they eeked out a 50-win season. Age and injury have slowed them down while their opponents, the Dallas Mavericks, have upgraded.
This is Dirk Nowitzki’s best supporting cast, even better than the team that went to the 2006 finals. With Jason Kidd running the show and newcomers Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood stepping in at small forward and center, the Mavericks are poised to go deep in the playoffs.
San Antonio’s top players — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli — still carry the team, but not as often. Parker and Ginobli were injured often this year and Duncan isn’t the all-world player he used to be. The Spurs and all their playoff experience will push the Mavericks, but in the end, Dallas should prevail. Mavericks in six games.
3. Phoenix Suns vs. 6. Portland Trail Blazers
The Suns got hot at the end of the year and the Blazers had a spectacular season despite losing a ton of players to injury. But the series is a no-brainer since Portland’s star player, Brandon Roy, is out of the entire series because of a knee injury.
Phoenix would be a tough out for any team with Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire playing their best ball at the end of the season. Portland won’t go without a fight, but without Roy to steady the team, Phoenix should win in five games.