The ABC/ESPN hype machine has gotten the Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals matchup that it has been craving since the day it took away the league television contract from NBC six years ago. (The worst thing about the network move was that the glorious John Tesh theme song was mothballed in favor of a rotation of music “stars” that has gotten progressively worse over the years, culminating in the horrific current opening that stars Tim McGraw and Def Leppard. For as much as the ESPN empire bashes us over the head with pop culture references, they seem to have confused the highly urbanized NBA audience with a group of carnies from Decatur. This might also be planting the seeds of another sick ploy by the television conglomerate to jam NASCAR cross-promotions down our throats.) I’ll be honest with you – I’ve been craving this matchup, too. It’s not that I have any personal affinity for either of these teams, but I couldn’t take another NBA Finals involving the Pistons (unequivocally my least favorite pro sports franchise after the Packers) and the Spurs (a team that I know I ought to like as a pure basketball fan, but they annoy me in an irrational manner). Plus, as a sports fan in general, I’ve come to appreciate the rekindling of storied rivalries at the highest level since people can’t bank on it anymore with increased parity in all of the sports leagues. Back when I was a little kid, the Celtics and Lakers playing in the NBA Finals was considered a common occurrence, so the fact that it has been 21 years since they last met for the championship (a series that I remember clearly) is the latest in a long line of historical moments that have reminded me that I’m not really young anymore. What’s unique about the Celtics-Lakers rivalry is that it isn’t based on geography or conference/division affiliation like almost every other sports rivalry, such as the general New York vs. Boston/Philadelphia or Chicago vs. Detroit/Green Bay/St. Louis matchups (note that Cowboys-Redskins is still a divisional rivalry), but instead on excellence where they have met on the final stage with incredible frequency for a three decade stretch of time. The closest comparison might be Notre Dame-USC, but even then, they have only played one game where the teams were ranked #1 and #2 (this occurred in 1988, which was the last time the Irish won a national championship).
Of course, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird aren’t going to have much effect on this series. I was very excited about the prospect of the Celtics-Lakers matchup at the beginning of the NBA Playoffs, but over the past few weeks, it’s been looking more and more like this series can’t possibly live up to the hype. Hopefully, I’m wrong and this will push out to seven games, since that would be a transcendent sports moment. However, the Lakers look dominant right now and they disposed of the Spurs (who I think would beat the Celtics head-to-head) in five. There’s little indication that L.A. wouldn’t be able to dispose of Boston in the same number of games, so I’ll avoid the typical conservative commentator prediction of a six-game series and say that the Lakers will win 4-1 (I foresee a split of the first 2 games in Boston and then the Lakers rattling off 3 straight at the Staples Center).
Kobe Bryant continues to play out of his mind (the yahoo portion of the Bulls fan base that didn’t want to give up guys like Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon and/or Luol Deng for this guy last fall continue to look horrible) and will clearly be the best player on the floor (which you could say no matter who the Lakers are playing). I love Kevin Garnett as one of my favorite athletes that hasn’t played for a Chicago team or the Illini (although he’s a native Chicagoan), but he can’t necessarily take over a game the way Kobe can. At the end of the day, Paul Pierce is going to be the one that needs to match Kobe shot-for-shot while the rest of the Celtics have to hold down Pau Gasol and the balance of the torrid Lakers offense – that’s going to be a whole lot tougher than the one-man-LeBron-show that took Boston to the brink of elimination or the Pistons club that could only utilize Chauncey Billups in limited fashion.
At the same time, the Lakers have a monster coaching advantage in Phil Jackson over Doc Rivers. For the Phil-haters out there, particularly from Boston, that discount his accomplishments since his championships came with the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen Bulls and the Kobe/Shaq Lakers, I would like to point out that Red Auerbach never won a championship without Bill Russell in an era when power forwards rarely cracked 5’10”. I’m not sure why this never gets mentioned. Granted, I’m a bit biased here since I grew up as a Bulls fanatic and Phil was at the helm of the teams that provided me with probably the most memorable sports moments of my life. However, he should always deserve credit for getting the max out of that franchise in the 1990s. As much as I love Mike Ditka (to the point where I have this autographed photo in my basement), the ’85 Bears ended up being the ultimate one-hit wonder in sports history instead of the becoming the first championship team in a dynasty that should have lasted for the rest of the 1980s (Bill Walsh’s 49ers teams ended up filling that space) due to a lot of internal squabbling and personality clashes (many of which were caused by Ditka himself, much less the case of him not being able to solve them). In contrast, the ‘90s Bulls were able to achieve success even when they had a murder’s row of Godzilla-sized egos – MJ was a cold-hearted competitor to the extreme, Scottie was always a Toni Kukoc-last-shot-play from snapping, most of the rest of the team was perpetually at odds with Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause about their contracts, and there was that slightly-off personality known as Dennis Rodman during the second three-peat. The fact that Phil put those guys into line for six championships (along with three more rings with Lakers teams that were nearly as ego-filled) is a testament to his ability to coach in the modern NBA.
Meanwhile, Phil’s well-known soft skills in managing personalities and digging into players’ psyches are complemented by what I believe is an underrated substantive skill: I don’t know of a basketball coach at any level that has ever managed rotations of players better than Phil. Phil would often take MJ out of regular season games relatively early, yet the Bulls rarely collapsed because he got key bench players substantive playing team with Scottie Pippen running the second unit. This paid off massively in the postseason since (a) MJ was always healthy because he wasn’t unnecessarily put through max minutes early in the season and (b) the bench players often came up huge as a result of not just being in there at garbage time, which is why reserves such as John Paxson, Bobby Hansen and Steve Kerr live on in Chicago sports lore with key baskets in championship clinching games. Phil has done the same thing with the Lakers by regularly removing Kobe early and giving the second unit quality minutes with Lamar Odom running the offense. That means that Kobe and the rest of the starters are fresher (and already younger) than an older tapped-to-the-brink Celtics team and Luke Son-of-a-Bastard Walton or someone else of that nature will be primed to make a number of clutch shots in the series when Kobe is double or triple teamed. On the other side of the floor, Doc Rivers is acknowledged to have one of the most inconsistent rotations in the NBA (guys will play 30 minutes one game and then get DNPs for two weeks straight), which is a severe disadvantage when the Celtics are much more banged-up and can’t really depend on their stars to go 48 minutes every night.
Like I’ve said before, the basketball fan in me hopes that I’m wrong and that this becomes an NBA Finals that lives up to the hype. However, the basketball analyst in me believes that this will be a pretty easy stretch for a significantly superior Lakers team.
(Image from Sportslifer’s Weblog)