Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Celtics prove talking-heads wrong in six games

When the Los Angeles Lakers, led by the undeniably great Kobe Bryant, dispatched the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in five games, talk began of a new basketball dynasty. The Lakers were young, talented, and led by a coach with no less than nine championships to his name. They had run circles around the unflappable Spurs, and expert analysts suddenly proclaimed how old the latter team was when, just one week before, they were compared to tempered steel. Kobe was again the toast of the town, and happily compared to Michael Jordan in even measured sentences. His march to a fourth championship a foregone conclusion.

And now those same columnists, radio hosts, and analysts are wondering what went wrong after the Lakers' six game subjugation to the Boston Celtics, a team heralded for having the best record in the NBA, but picked by almost no one to top Los Angeles in the finals.

After a quick two game drubbing to the Lakers all comparisons between Bryant and Jordan ceased. The tone switched to how effective Bryant was playing on a less talented team. It became clear that the Celtics, whose gritty determination, skilled defense, and floor spreading team play, had the elements on the floor that win a championship. While the Lakers' reliance on a superstar, a finesse offense, and coaching acumen, suddenly looked more style than substance.

The road to Celtic title was halted briefly in game three when, in Los Angeles, the Lakers held on to their large early-game lead and won by six. Game four proved to be the pivotal match with the Lakers bounding out to a 21 point lead in the first quarter. By the half the Celtics were no closer than 18. But the Lakers, contriving to blow the thing in front of their horrified fans, put up an anemic 33 second quarter points, and watched Boston eclipse and win by six. The next day pundits wanted to know one thing: was it a collapse or a comeback? As if the two are ever mutually exclusive.

The Lakers forestalled the Celtics one more time, holding on to game five by five. But in the end, in game six, it was all Boston in Boston. As if to quell any doubts the Celtics won going away, shelling Los Angeles with 131 points and allowing them 97. A modern day Boston Massacre.

My hat goes off to the Celtics. The team won 24 games last year, good for the second worst record in the sport (behind only Memphis). They lost the lottery to Portland, and then went out and assembled a championship team from available players. Kevin Garnett was had from Minnesota and Ray Allen was signed. Both would play alongside the talented Paul Pierce. Teams with superstars often falter under their own weight (see: Denver) but this team won 26 of their first 29 games and never looked back. They slugged their way through the playoffs, dispatched the formidable Detroit Pistons in six games, and then made their hated rivals, the Lakers, a footnote in their history. They did it by playing good basketball, playing as as the better team, and silenced the Bryant - Jordan debate for another eleven months.

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