Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Finals Pick: Celtics In Six

First off, the obvious disclaimer: if you are doing anything with these NBA series picks other than laughing your fool head off at them, and/or going the other way, you must be high. I'm the guy who thought the Heat would beat the Celtics, then the Cavs, and then the Magic. I thought that the Suns would get past the Lakers, but only after they lost to the Spurs. I have been wrong, wrong, wrong, and then wrong again, and in payment for all of that wrongness, I have gottten my semi-annual Nightmare Finals.

It also does not matter, of course, that a week ago both of these teams looked a little shaky. The Lakers somehow spent two games failing to figure out a zone defense, and gave up massive leads late to guys from Slovenia and the D-League. The Celtics were walking wounded and scaring their always unflappable fan base into thinking that they were going to be the only team to ever gag up a 3-0 series lead. The simple fact of the matter is that both of these teams have demolished the idea that the regular season means a damn thing. It doesn't. They both slept through it, then flicked the on switch. That's all there is to it.

The Lakers, since they have the better record and the ends of the 2-3-2 Idiot Schedule (well, I suppose it helps cut down on the carbon offset), are the slight favorites. The Celtics, who euthanized this Laker team two years ago when they were healthy, have the swagger, as well as the much better history. But let's get into it in more detail.

Point guard: Big edge to the Celtics. Rajon Rondo has been the best Celtic in this post-season. His defensive pressure in the half court is going to be the first time since the Thunder series that the Lakers will face pressure there, and since Rondo is a wirey, cobra-type body, you can even throw him at Kobe Bryant from time to time if Kobe becomes the primary ball handler. Derek Fisher is absolutely fearless, prone to big back-breaking makes, and having a great post-season. If he can fight this anywhere close to a draw, the Lakers will win. He won't.

Shooting guard: Edge to the Lakers, but not without a battle. Kobe Bryant has been the best player in the Association since getting his knee drained. His makes against the Suns to close out Game Six were borderline unholy, and his focus right now is unquestioned. He's the best bailout for a bad possession in the game, and given how tough the Celtic defense is, that's a big deal. Ray Allen might be the best shooter in the league when he has his feet set and no hand in his face. That won't happen as much against the Lakers as it did with the Cavs and Magic, but thanks to the Celtic bigs, it will still happen.

Small forward: Edge to Boston. Paul Pierce came through late in the Magic series to prevent further drama, and he's one of the better choices in the Association for Kobe Duty, since he doesn't get cheap whistles like a non-star, and can force Bryant to expend energy on the defensive end if he gets hot. Against Ron Artest, he'll struggle, but the big thing about Pierce's game right now is that he does not need to score to contribute. As for Testy, he won't get looks from the arc, will get constant abuse on the road, and could easily shrink in the spotlight, seeing as he's (a) muy loco en la cabesa, and (b) in his first Finals. If he costs his team a game early, he could easily cost them another late.

Power forward: Edge to LA. Paul Gasol looked lost late in the series against Phoenix, but in a halfcourt game against a team that won't go uptempo or zone. he'll start to get looks again, and Kevin Garnett just isn't moving well enough right now to shut him down. Gasol was the real problem for the Lakers in the matchup two years ago, in that his offensive game didn't bring back as much as he let in on the other end. After two years of exposure to Coach Philip, he's better but not great, and Garnett's slippage will help immsely. It also doesn't help the Celtics that Garnett has a well-known aversion to late game shots.

Center: Edge to Boston. Kendrick Perkins makes the Celtics go on offense in the half court, as his massive body, shuffling feet and questionable ethics gives the shooters a wall of protection that benefits them greatly. He's also one of the best low-post defenders in the Association. It's just a shame that he's such an unconscionable whiner. Honestly, Perk has got the skill set of someone you could love, but his personality just destroys it. As for the Lakers, Andrew Bynum got his knee drained today, hoping for some of that Kobe Magic to wear off. I'm not seeing it, because I think the fluid needs to come out of his head first.

Bench: Edge to Boston. The most important non-Kobe Laker is Lamar Odom. If he's rebounding or riddling the opposition with interior passing from a big man that's among the best in the league, the Lakers don't lose. If he's taking threes, getting lost on pick and rolls and turning the ball over, they are going down. It's pretty simple, really -- and the biggest reason why Odom going to the bench is a winning move for the Lakers. He's just more likely to get on a roll early against scrubs. The other Laker bench players (Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown, and maybe, though not guaranteed after his Game Six shenanigans, Sasha Vujacic) really don't factor into things very much, though I could see Luke Walton having some good minutes against the Cs. But the big problem for the Lakers is that the last time Odom played these guys in the Finals, they made him look downright terrible.

The Celtics counter with Rasheed Wallace, Big Baby Davis. Tony Allen and maybe Nate Robinson. The variability of these guys is just astounding; all of them can single-handedly carry a team for a few minutes, or sink them. The Celtics' propensity to foul, and advancing age, means that the bench matters more to them, and the most important / impressive guy here is Davis. He may look like a drunken seal on ice skates, whine more than anyone this side of Sheed, and have a protective layer of blubber that you just don't see outside of a Euro league. But he sets great screens, gets the call more often than not when he takes charges, and hits the mid-range jumper as well as any Celtic big (and yes, that includes Garnett). If he had to play starter's minutes, he'd fall apart, but for 20-25 minutes game, he's deadly.

Coaching; Edge to LA, but a fight. A month ago, this would have been a walkover. Doc Rivers was Dead Coach Walking, and the Zen Master was heading into the best salary drive ever for a coach. (And no, I can't see him taking Nets money, no matter how much the Mad Russian offers. Phil doesn't do rebuilding.) Now, I'm not so sure. Rivers has been masterful in getting production from previously DOA players like Robinson and Wallace, and he's the only man in America who would be getting anything out of Sheed by now.

But, well, there's a reason why Philip is Philip, and we'll see it manifested at the free throw line for at least one game in this series, despite the fact that only Kobe is the only Laker that's any good at getting to the line. And he has to want to.

The pick: I think it's a mistake to believe that (a) home court really matters that much when it comes to teams with this many veterans, or (b) how these teams finished their conference finals will have any impact on how the games are played. But there's also this: the Celtics benefitted immensely in their series with the Magic by getting the early lead, and they got it from taking advantage of Magic rust. I think they'll steal a game in LA, win two out of three in the Boston games, and close this out on the road in Game Six, with the Lakers getting progresively worn down by the physical play. I also suspect that Kobe will go into Hero Mode too early, leading to diminished capacities later. I also think that watching the Celtics win will make me hate life more than watching the Lakers win, so that's what's going to happen.

But then there's the track record to date... so honestly, take the Lakers to sweep. You'll probably have a better chance.

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