Tuesday, June 3, 2008

NBA Finals preview

By Rick Morris

From the "frozen envelope" to the Tim Donaghy scandal, David Stern's marketing-obsessed reign over the NBA has led to a plethora of conspiracy theories over the past quarter-century. The sudden revival of the league's greatest rivalry in the form of this year's championship series will do nothing to quiet the "Oh, isn't THAT convenient" crowd.

Ultimately, though, the biggest reason that the Lakers and Celtics will renew their epic historical struggle in the NBA Finals is the fact that two players from the 1980s glory days in this rivalry got very, very lucky. Mitch Kupchak absolutely swindled the Memphis Grizzlies to pick up Pao Gasol in one of the most disgraceful deals in league history. Gasol became an absolutely vital part for the Lakers when their budding star center Andrew Bynum ended up on the sidelines for the rest of the season. On the other side of the country, Danny Ainge got out the credit card, completely mortgaged the Celtics' future, but ended up with exactly the short-term jolt that was necessary to save his job when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce to form a "Big Three" for the ages.

[SIDE NOTE: This is the ultimate test of sincerity for fans of a downtrodden team who say, "Man, if they could just win it all ONCE, I'd never complain if they went back to being horrible again." Boston fans have suffered ever since the final remnants of their destiny evaporated in the early '90s when Larry Bird's retirement and Reggie Lewis' tragic passing combined with the earlier Len Bias tragedy ended the dream. The Celtics have an awesome short-term window in these Finals and probably even next year. If they get over the top, will fans cry when they end up back in the lottery when these aging stars can no longer live up to their Hall of Fame legacies? We shall see.]

The four best players in this series are, of course, Kobe Bryant, Garnett, Pierce and Allen, probably in that order although some might still rank Allen ahead of Pierce. The fifth-best player is undoubtedly Gasol; in the unlikely event he comes close to matching Pierce and/or Allen over the course of the series, the Lakers should win in five. In the much more unlikely event that Gasol and Lamar Odom come close to matching Allen and Pierce collectively, the Lakers should win in a sweep.

Given their progress over the course of the season, the Lakers have to be considered the favorites notwithstanding Boston's superior record and home-court designation. They broke less of a sweat against generally superior competition in the West bracket. They also have a huge edge in three critical areas: the best player, the best coach and the best depth.

However, ignored in the flush of LA's big win over San Antonio was the fact that the team offense really fell off in that series. With the league's best defense awaiting them in the finals, Kobe has to work to keep all of his teammates involved in the scoring and not fall into his bad and selfish habits that have held back his teams in the past. Paradoxically, he could end up falling into that trap because of how easy scoring may come to him in the Finals; Allen is coming off of a sub-par performance guarding Rip Hamilton in the East Finals.

For the Celtics, the key balance in the series will be resting their precious troika enough while not letting the bench squander the series. James Posey continues to be one of the best role players in the league, but he doesn't have much help, especially relative to LA's deep roster of matchup possibilities. Sam Cassell in particular has been an absolute disgrace down the stretch.

Ultimately, in one of those magic touches that make so many conspiracy nuts start foaming at the mouth, this series appears poised to end with one of hoops history's greatest ironies. Given the enmity that existed between Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson, how odd will it be for Big Chief Triangle to surpass the old master, in Boston no less, by being the first NBA coach to garner ten titles? We should get to find out. Lakers in six.

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