Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Celtics-Lakers -- Game 6 thread

Final, 131-92. Celtics were just awesome all season: 66 wins, a couple of hiccups in the early rounds, but consistent, punishing defense, throughout the Finals and a beautiful togetherness. Doc Rivers made some questionable strategic moves, but he did an amazing job of meshing all of these new pieces together into a championship team. The Celtics played so hard all year. Well deserved.

This one was over in the first quarter. Celtics pouring it on now, 101-70.

Ray Allen is one of the best 3-point shooters in NBA history. Somebody might want to guard him ... still waiting ... how about now? No? Allen spins the ball, reads the laces, cradles it, rocks it to sleep, then drains a 3.

Boston is looking to run more now than at any time in this series. The Celtics clearly get it: run more with the lead, keep the pressure on.

Allen for 3. Celtics, 63-36. Radmanovic could care less who wins this game.

Rondo opens the second half with a jumper. Everything going Boston's way. Celtics, 60-35.

Halftime: Celtics, 58-35. Lakers are 8-for-27 from the field with 11 turnovers and -12 on the boards. Ouch.

Perkins denies Odom, then scores over him at the other end. Celtics, 58-35.

Garnett hangs, is mugged, and scores off the glass, and 1. Celtics, 56-35.

Kobe just turned it over. Lakers are about to crack.

Great ball movement by Boston. Rondo in the lane. Celtics, 51-35.

Garnett again. Celtics, 51-35.

By all statistical measures, the Celtics are one of the greatest defensive teams of all-time. Just how good? Well, the Lakers' offense clicked for three rounds: against Denver, Utah and San Antonio, also one of the league's best defensive teams. So, maybe the Lakers' struggles in this series are due only to Boston's greatness. That said, LA could use another guy who could create his own shot from the perimeter. Bynum's return will help with rebounding and interior defense, but the Lakers don't have another player on their roster who can attack the rim.

Radmanovic just fouled on a dead ball, 25 feet from the basket. Over/under on Radmanovic brain cells: 1.3. I'll take the under.

Radmanovic just chipped paint on that 3-point attempt.

Gasol almost threw away his 23rd outlet pass this postseason.

Kobe just got ripped by Posey, which leads to a Posey 3. Celtics, 43-29. 11-0 run.

The Lakers aren't close to matching the Celtics' force. Another foul on Fisher. House with two from the line. Boston, 40-29.

Is this 1984 all over again? Boston is winning this game with energy and aggression: 20-12 on the boards (including 8-0 on the offensive end), seven steals.

House for 3. Celtics, 38-29. Terrible defensive organization by the Lakers, who aren't locating shooters, rotate for no reason, rotate for the wrong reason. Ugh.

Two more offensive rebounds on the same possession, which lead to Posey's 3. Celtics, 35-29.

Kobe is forcing 3s again. The Lakers can't get anyone else going offensively, which means the Celtics should shade even more defenders onto Kobe and not give him any even semi-open looks. Celtics, 31-26.

Danger time for LA. Celtics lead, 29-24, and the game is getting very physical. Advantage Boston.

Celtics have just the right emotional pitch to start.

Celtics lead after one, 24-20. Kobe is 4-for-7; other Lakers are 1-for-7. LA also has six turnovers (four by Gasol). For Boston, meanwhile, Garnett is 5-for-7, but Pierce is 1-for-6.

Celtics swarming the boards with two and three guys going up for every missed shot by the Lakers.

Farmar has to pass that to Kobe, who was wide-open for 3. Instead, Farmar clanks a 2 to follow his turnover out of bounds on the previous possession. Too many Lakers tentative early.

Good sign for Boston that Garnett is 4-for-6 to open the game. The Celtics are also up 11-8 on the boards, including five at the offensive end.

Garnett with six straight for the Celtics, who lead 20-18.

Walton with four off the bench. Lakers, 18-16.

ABC has to stop with the split screen. We don't need to see a player going to the locker room.

Celtics are trying to pound inside. Odom is holding is ground; Gasol is not.

Kobe hits back-to-back 3s. He's 3-for-3, eight points.

Radmanovic gives up an offensive rebound. He is practically useless.

Kobe opens with a deep 2. Lakers, 2-0.

The Lakers need to follow the prescription to win an elimination-game on the road: stay within striking distance, control the boards, defend for 48 minutes.

Bill Russell, Cedric Maxwell, Jo Jo White, M.L. Carr, John Havlicek among the former Celtics in attendance.

The 1984 Finals have been well-documented. The Lakers probably should have swept, but made crunch-time mistakes in Games 2 and 4 that let the Celtics back in the series. By the time Game 7 rolled around, the Boston Garden faithful helped will the home team to victory. The boisterous, blue-collar crowd was much like the Celtics: hard hats, lunch pails, physical to the nth degree. Boston won the battle of the boards, 52-33, including 20 at the offensive end, and earned 51 free-throw attempts in a 111-102 victory. Lakers coach Pat Riley said afterward: "It was their night, their town, their fans, their friends." The Celtics are severely banged up heading into tonight's Game 6. Can the crowd spur them to another victory? The longer this series goes, the more the advantage shifts to LA.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Celtics-Lakers -- Game 5 analysis

Through five games in this series, the Celtics are the better team and the more disciplined team. Despite two victories at home to extend the series, the Lakers' performances were not good. They were littered with defensive breakdowns and lapses in focus down the stretch. They don't seem capable of sustaining offensive excellence for long stretches, let alone 48 minutes.

As discussed earlier, teams leading 3-2 in the NBA Finals and heading home are 8-for-8 in winning the championship. On seven of those occasions, the home team closed it out in Game 6. In the other one, the 2005 Spurs lost in Game 6, but then bounced back to defeat the Pistons in 7.

In order for the Lakers to win in Boston and stave off elimination, they will have to lock in defensively for four quarters, move the ball better for four quarters, battle on the boards for four quarters, get Gasol, Odom and one shooter going, while also having Kobe in rhythm down the stretch. Those are a lot of things to ask of the Lakers, who haven't strung together a 48-minute game yet.

Celtics-Lakers -- Game 5 thread

Lakers win, 103-98.

House for 3. Celtics within 3, 101-98. Lakers almost turn over the ball. Terrible display trying to close out this game. Fisher at the line: make, make. Lakers, 103-98. 9.0 seconds to go.

Kobe at the line: make, miss. Lakers, 101-95. 15.4 seconds to go.

Fisher at the line: miss, make. Lakers, 100-95. 24.8 seconds to go.

Allen misses a drive and Garnett misses a follow. Lakers ball, up four, 26.8 seconds left.

Kobe strips Pierce again. Odom sends Kobe free for a dunk. Lakers, 99-95. 37.4 seconds to go. Five steals for Kobe.

Fisher misses a long 3.

Kobe can't blow by Allen, whose defense against the world's greatest player is underrated. Kobe forces a long 3, which misses. Odom fouls on the rebound. Pierce at the line: make, make. Lakers, 97-95. 1:14 left. The game is right there for the Celtics.

Kobe at the line: make, make. Lakers, 97-93. 2:14 left.

Gasol misses over Garnett, then fouls him. How can Kobe not have the ball in his hands? Garnett at the line: miss, miss. Lakers, 95-93. 2:31 left.

Pierce blows past three Lakers, fouled. Pierce at the line: make, make. Lakers, 95-93.

Bryant strips Pierce. Fisher at the line: miss, make. Lakers, 95-91. 3:07 left.

Great pass from Kobe to Odom, who goes soft and misses a chance for a 3-point play. Odom at the line: make, make. Lakers, 94-91.

Garnett and Pierce both pick up their fifth fouls in the span of 10 seconds. Lakers lead, 92-91. 3:31 to go.

Gasol over Garnett inside. Lakers, 92-90.

Garnett jumper. Tie game, 90-90. 4:25 left.

With five minutes to go and the game now close, the Lakers' inability to defend Pierce at all could bury them. Bryant is now on Pierce. Every LA possession must run through Kobe.

Odom drops another rebound out-of-bounds. Boston is making a final push. Do the Lakers really want to extend this to another game? Or are they defeated?

Posey for 3. Celtics within 3, 90-86.

Another turnover by Kobe.

More careless fouls by the Lakers. Walton just bumped Pierce 46 feet from the basket. Lakers in the penalty the final 6:22. Celtics within seven, 90-83.

Lakers are settling again. Gasol just made a weak attempt on the block, Kobe launched a contested jumper.

Walton pulls up on the break. Lakers, 88-74.

Gasol has found a bit of inner strength. He's fought harder in block-out situations and just blocked Ray Allen's drive.

Pierce is abusing every defender the Lakers send his way right now. And Kobe, with four fouls, can't afford to aggressively check him.

Odom for 3. Lakers up, 84-72.

Lakers close the third strong, lead, 79-70. They need to dig deep right now and unleash a fastbreak the entire final 12 minutes. Now is not the time to get tentative and walk the ball up the floor.

Fisher gets a conventional 3-point play, Radmanovic adds a corner 3. Lakers fighting back, now lead, 71-64.

Kobe picks up another charge; Celtics team defense is so solid.

At this point, if Boston can stay strong and impose its will on the game they can finish it at the end. Similar to how Miami closed out Dallas on the road in 2006. The Heat were the tougher team in that series too.

Celtics are just tougher, physically too, but mostly mentally. The Lakers have been plagued throughout the Finals by lapses in concentration, lapses in desire to push the ball, lapses in defensive intensity. Being down 3-1, they have to summon the desire to extend this series even though a championship now is unlikely. I'm not sure they can do it.

Second half starting, Lakers lead 55-52, again giving away most of what once was a huge lead.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Celtics-Lakers -- Game 5 outlook

Since the NBA adopted the 2-3-2 format for the NBA Finals in 1985, here's how the eight teams trailing 3-1 in the series fared in a Game 5 at home:

1986 -- Rockets vs. Celtics (W, 111-96)
1987 -- Celtics vs. Lakers (W, 123-108)
1990 -- Blazers vs. Pistons (L, 92-90)
1991 -- Lakers vs. Bulls (L, 108-101)
1996 -- Sonics vs. Bulls (W, 89-78)
1999 -- Knicks vs. Spurs (L, 78-77)
2000 -- Pacers vs. Lakers (W, 120-87)
2001 -- 76ers vs. Lakers (L, 108-96)

Celtics-Lakers -- Game 4 analysis

Statistics will prove that if you flip a fair coin a few billion times the number of "heads" and "tails" outcomes will be fairly equal. And the closer that "n" approaches infinity, the closer the distribution will approach 50/50. Within those billion flips, however, it is not unusual to see long runs, of say 10 or even more, of one outcome.

Let's translate this theory to basketball. The Lakers and Celtics are fairly equal teams. If these teams traded "n" possessions a few billion times, the score would approach a tie game. Within those billion possessions, however, it wouldn't be unusual to see long scoring runs, for one team, then the other. This happens in basketball games all the time, right? Team A goes on an 8-0 run. Later, Team B goes on an 11-3 run. No big deal.

A 24-point lead (i.e., a run or series of runs equaling a +24 in outcomes) is different for two reasons. First, a game has a set stopping point, one that obviously is far short of a billion or so possessions. Typically, Team B just runs out of time before it can even the score with an equalizing run of its own. Second, and perhaps even more important, however, is that once Team A has a 24-point lead, the game is no longer "fair." Teams often try peculiar lineups, rest their best players, and neither team performs with the same focus and concentration as when the game was close.

How did the Celtics pull off a historic comeback last night and stun the Lakers in Game 4 of the NBA Finals? First, they had help. Human nature kicked in, and the Lakers relaxed. It's impossible to fake or mimic a tie game or a deficit when they don't exist. In their minds, I'm sure the Lakers knew a comeback was remotely possible, but really, it wasn't. Second, the big LA lead had an element of fool's gold. Kobe was never in the flow offensively. Yes, the Lakers needed scoring and involvement from other players, but not at the expense of a sharp Kobe. Why? Well, eventually when the other players cooled off (which they did), and when the Celtics' defense locked in (which it did), Kobe was not in the Game 3-type rhythm that he needed to be in in order to carry home a victory once the game was close.

To actually pull off the comeback, however, the Celtics needed heavy doses of belief and toughness. They stayed in the "fair" game and didn't give up. Belief and togetherness and toughness -- not physically tough (although they have that too), but mentally tough -- aren't born overnight. They are the product of individuals and a roster put together beautifully by Danny Ainge. Once the Big 3 was assembled, Ainge set out to complete a championship roster with tough-minded role players. And certainly Boston's situation was attractive to veteran free agents.

The Celtics signed Eddie House and James Posey. They signed P.J. Brown in February after Paul Pierce and Ray Allen visited Brown during the all-star break and convinced him to join the team. They added defensive coaching guru Tom Thibodeau. They signed Sam Cassell in March. Veteran players, professionals, guys caring more about the end result than personal glory.

Still, you can't just throw a bunch of mismatched pieces against a wall and expect them to stick. Oft-maligned coach Doc Rivers did a stellar job of fitting together the pieces, of developing a cohesive system and also team chemistry.

Year-long effort and commitment and toughness were at the crux of the monumental Game 4 rally.

House had 11 points and zero turnovers in 25 minutes in place of injured and ineffective starter Rajon Rondo. Posey, who has a championship ring from Miami in 2006, chipped in with 18 points, including four 3-pointers, in 25 minutes. Cassell, who has been a role player on two title teams in Houston and also a main cog with the Bucks and Clippers, didn't score in seven minutes last night, but he was repeatedly the first one off the bench to shout encouragement for two quarters straight.

Boston's comeback was improbable, but it was made possible because the Celtics never quit and never stopped believing that the game was fair. And because of that, they gave themselves a chance to catch their own run of success long before the billionth repetition.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The NBA, refs, and fouling

The NBA Finals are taking a bit of a backseat to talk about former referee Tim Donaghy, betting on games, fixing games, officiating games in a certain manner, league mandates on which outcomes should be "helped," etc., etc., etc. As much as David Stern wants this chapter of his tenure to go away, it won't. In the coming weeks and months, look for more and more information, innuendo, facts, and witnesses to step forward.

In general, I'm not a big believer in conspiracy theories. I find them interesting, like a good TV crime drama: fun to talk about and consider the possibilities, but ultimately not true if only because too many people would have to be involved to pull it off. How would it ever work logistically? (Here's my article on NBCSports.com that looks at some of league's most notorious conspiracy theories).

Then, with the Celtics leading Game 3, 62-60, after three quarters, I wondered aloud how soon Boston would be in the penalty in the fourth quarter.

Foul No. 1: Leon Powe, away from-the-ball, bumps Lamar Odom, 0:39 elapsed.
Foul No. 2: Eddie House, away-from-the-ball, grabbing Kobe Bryant, 1:23 elapsed.
Foul No. 3: James Posey, on a Kobe Bryant shot attempt, 2:49 elapsed.
Foul No. 4: Ray Allen, away from the ball, vs. Luke Walton, 3:41 elapsed.
Foul No. 5: Rajon Rondo vs. Derek Fisher, 5:34 elapsed.

Now, the Celtics aren't the first team to spend the final 5:34 of a tough defensive game in the penalty, but if you're ever wondering how officials can really impact the game this is it. Block/charge calls, traveling calls, etc., are going to be replayed and critiqued numerous times on TV. They're going to be challenged.

But it's the away-from-the-ball bumping, holding, hand-checking calls early in quarters that never are mentioned. Analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson didn't question any of these five fouls, three of which happened 15-20 feet away from the basket and even farther away from the action. The first two, in particular, were highly dubious.

They are calls that could be made on every possession, but aren't. Yet, in the fourth quarter of a pivotal game in the NBA Finals, they were called and they all went in favor of the home team that needed to win to extend the series.

Radio Interview

Joining Greg Pogue on WNSR (Nashville, Tenn.) to discuss the NBA Finals the morning after Game 3. Click here to hear the audio.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Celtics-Lakers -- Game 3 analysis

The Lakers were better, but still shouldn't feel too great about their 87-81 victory in Game 3. The triangle offense isn't netting them much, Gasol and Odom aren't producing and are playing soft, and without 20 points off the bench from Vujacic, LA doesn't win.

The Celtics, meanwhile, got very little from Pierce and Garnett, who were 8-for-35 combined, yet held a lead in the fourth quarter of a road game in which the Lakers were desperate.

LA's defense was improved -- and that made a huge difference.

Ultimately, for the Lakers to win the next two games, they need to get out and run and get more easy baskets. We're three games into this series now, and it doesn't appear LA's offense will be anywhere near as good as it was earlier in the playoffs. The Celtics' defense is too locked in.

Celtics-Lakers -- Game 3 thread

Lakers win, 87-81.

Bryant over Allen. Lakers, 87-81. Doc Rivers left Allen on an island against Joe Johnson and Rip Hamilton earlier in the playoffs, so you knew this was coming. Rivers just left Allen to guard Kobe alone on consecutive possessions. Bryant hit two jumpers.

House for 3. Lakers, 85-81.

Bryant a long 2. Lakers, 85-78.

Garnett free for a dunk. Lakers, 83-78.

Fisher fouled on a drive: make, make. Lakers, 83-76. 1:33 left.

Vujacic for 3. Lakers, 81-76. 1:53 left.

Garnett off glass. Lakers, 78-76.

Lakers don't get the ball to Kobe on the entire possession, Gasol shoots an air ball.

Pierce at the line: make, make. Lakers, 78-74.

Gasol fouled inside: miss, make. Lakers, 78-72.

Pierce muscles to the hoop, and 1. Celtics within five, 77-72.

Gasol follows up Odom's miss. Lakers, 77-70. Odom is attacking Garnett off the dribble now, which is creating offensive-rebound lanes for Gasol.

Gasol tips in Odom's miss. Lakers, 75-70.

Bryant fouled on a drive, earns two free throws: make, make. Lakers, 73-68.

Fisher fouled on a drive. Celtics in the penalty for the final 6:27. Fisher makes a pair. Lakers, 71-68.

Bryant for 3 off a busted play. Lakers, 69-68.

Vujacic off another curl, buries a long 2. Tie game, 66-all.

Four team fouls on the Celtics, 8:20 to go.

Lakers run another set play for a Vujacic 3, which is on target but just long.

Here come the whistles as Powe and House are called for away-from-the-ball fouls in the first 1:30 of the quarter.

Allen answers for 3. Celtics, 65-63.

Vujacic knocks down a 3 off a set play to open the fourth. Lakers, 63-62.

Over/under on free-throw attempts by the Lakers in the fourth quarter: 15.

Celtics lead after 3, 62-60. Odom and Gasol finally made their first field goals, but the Celtics lead despite Pierce missing 9 of his 10 shots, and Garnett missing 11 of his 15.

Vujacic on Allen. This is trouble for LA.

Kobe on the bench with the Lakers down 61-58 with 1:07 to go in the third.

Allen makes three free throws. He now has 22 on 7-for-10 shooting, including 4-for-4 on 3s. His slump is clearly a distant memory, and that fact has changed the outlook on this series.

Lakers have to run and get some easy baskets. At this point, their entire offense is Kobe trying to beat his man and any and all help defenders. Vujacic is the only other player for LA who showed up and isn't completely overwhelmed by this situation.

Allen for 3. Celtics, 54-50.

Gasol holds it, loses it on a drive. Garnett answers with a deep two. Celtics, 51-49.

Garnett in the lane. Tie game, 49-all.

Gasol and Odom look tentative. They catch the ball and immediately look to get rid of it.

House for 3. Celtics within two, 49-47.

At this point Radmanovic should leave the floor and just keep on walking.

Are you serious? ABC just went split-screen to show Rondo walking back to the locker room with a sprained ankle. What is this, the OJ car-chase?

What's up with Rondo going to that wrap-around, fake-behind-the-back pass so often?

Allen for 3. Celtics within six, 43-37, at halftime. Boston has been outplayed, but this game is well within reach.

Gasol is so soft right now. On back-to-back possessions he was easily doubled and made a predictable pass that was easily picked off, then he rolled to the rim and missed a layin.

Vujacic back-to-back jumpers. Lakers, 38-27.

Farmar for 3. Lakers, 34-25.

Vujacic loses Allen, who comes off a screen and buries a 3. Celtics within four, 29-25. I've said it before, everything Vujacic contributes on offense he gives right back.

Farmar and Brown get tangled up on a rebound. Technicals are issued to both players. Ridiculous. That was nothing. The NBA is hyper-sensitive about every skirmish.

Five Lakers touch the ball, which crisply swings to Vujacic, who knocks down a 3. Lakers, 29-22.

Kobe with a pull-up and two free throws. Lakers, 24-20.

Odom, outworked by Powe for a rebound, picks up No. 3 just 20 seconds into the second quarter.

After the expected early energy, the Lakers are flat again. The crowd is quiet. Fastbreak opportunities are at a minimum, and the game is being played to the Celtics' style again. Tie game at 20 after one quarter.

Garnett is 0-for-5, Pierce 0-for-4, yet Celtics down 1.

Radmanovic loses Posey, who knocks down a 3. Radmanovic picks up another foul, his third, while chasing a loose ball.

Fisher a pull-up in transition. Lakers, 15-7.

Other than standstill, open 3s, Radmanovic is a liability. He can't defend, and his shots off the dribble are very low percentage.

Lakers much more aggressive early, lead, 8-2.

Lakers forcing it into Kobe in the post. This isn't their offense, and Kobe ends up forcing difficult off-balance jumpers.

Bryant on Rondo; Fisher on Allen. I thought the Lakers would align this way the entire series. It does three things that work to LA's advantage: 1) Allows Kobe to roam on defense because Rondo isn't a threat to shoot from outside; 2) Allows Fisher, whose focus is defense to keep close to Allen, who is primarily a jump-shooter; 3) Forces the Celtics to align the same way (i.e., Rondo on Kobe).

Lakers introduced to The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again."

It isn't often that the team with homecourt advantage (i.e., won more games during the regular season) isn't favored, yet that is what happened this year. So, if you are a conspiracy theorist, you could argue that the Celtics needed help from the referees to secure two wins at home, and thus guarantee a longer series. Had the Lakers won either one or both games in Boston, they could have closed on the series quickly at home.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Celtics-Lakers -- Game 2 analysis

Throw away the big comeback. The bottom line is this: the Lakers are in an 0-2 hole because they've been beat up for two games and have shown very little ability, poise or desire to reverse some disturbing trends.

First off, the Celtics have proved quicker off the dribble, quicker to loose balls, quicker to get into their offense. As a result, LA is a step behind on everything and too often fouls trying to catch up.

The Celtics' defense, meanwhile, has completely blown up the triangle. The Lakers have been forced into post-ups and isolations. The ball isn't moving, Kobe is taking difficult shots, and role players are not well-positioned in order to contribute.

Things, of course, can change in California, but LA has to be more forceful in everything that it does.

Even so, is it too late?

Since the NBA went to the 2-3-2 Finals format in 1985, the team with homecourt advantage has won 17 of 23 series. When that team wins the first two at home, it has won 10 of 11.

Here's more bad news for the Lakers. In 23 series, the middle three games have been swept just four times and only once by the home team (2004 Pistons vs. the Lakers).

* Teams leading 3-2 and going home are 8-0 (seven close-outs in Game 6; one loss in Game 6, followed by a win in Game 7).

* Teams leading 3-2 and going on the road are 4-2 (close-outs in Game 6 by the 85 Lakers, 93 Bulls, 98 Bulls and 06 Heat; Game 6 and Game 7 losses by the 88 Pistons and 94 Knicks).

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Celtics-Lakers -- Game 2 preview and radio interview

Click here to hear me discuss the NBA Finals with JT the Brick on Fox Sports Radio (June 6, 2008).

Game 2 preview

Larry Bird's Celtics and Magic Johnson's Lakers met three times in the NBA Finals (1984, 1985 and 1987).

It's been well-documented that in 1984 LA could have easily won in a sweep: convincing win in Game 1, blowout win in Game 3, and late leads lost in Games 2 and 4, courtesy of improbable turnovers, clock management and choked free throws. The Lakers' mistakes opened the door, and the Celtics, thanks to some physical and inspired play, shoved their way through.

LA's reputation was fastbreak and finesse. Boston's? Hard hats and lunch pails. In the four games the Celtics won in the series, they outrebounded the Lakers by these margins: 9, 6, 14, 19. By the time the teams met for the rematch in 1985, the Lakers were aware of coach Pat Riley's mantra: "No rebounds, no rings."

LA, of course, responded, held its ground, drew even on the boards, even gained substantial advantages in two of its four victories (+12 each in Games 2 and 3), and finally defeated the Celtics in a championship series.

It raises a question that is also relevant in this year's series: Even if one team is at a rebounding disadvantage (due to size, strength, individual matchups, style of play, etc.), how much can that advantage be negated with increased commitment?

In 1985, some additional desire went a long way. In 2008, can Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf, even guards Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, push back? Or will the Celtics, who carried out their blueprint for winning these Finals in Game 1, duplicate that performance, especially in the paint, three more times?

Game 2 should give us the answer.

Here come the Trail Blazers

Not only did Portland win half of its games in 2008 (a nine-game improvement from the previous season), that 41-41 record included some impressive feats: three victories over the Jazz (including one in Utah), two apiece against the Lakers, Mavs and Hornets, one vs. the Pistons. And don't forget ... a 13-game winning streak.

What's next for the Blazers?

* They're adding the No. 1 overall selection in last year's draft, center Greg Oden. Reports are Oden is on schedule with conditioning and rehabilitation following knee surgery. Even if he eases his way back into the flow, it shouldn't take long for Oden to anchor the middle of Portland's defense with his rebounding and shot blocking. A polished offensive game was Oden's biggest weakness, and with this roster he won't be asked to do too much, too soon.

* All-star Brandon Roy leads a core group, including LaMarus Aldridge, Travis Outlaw, Jarrett Jack and Martell Webster, of Portland's top-five returning players who are all younger than 25.

* Word Friday that Rudy Fernandez, whose NBA rights are owned by the Blazers, will leave his Spanish team and sign with Portland. Fernandez, a 6-foot-6 guard who is 23 years old, averaged 21.2 points as one of Spain's top players. He is a slasher and has shooting range, but needs to get stronger. Odds are he'll develop. How much and how fast? That, of course, remains to be seen.

* The 13th selection in this month's draft. Some projections have the the Blazers landing Joe Alexander, the 6-8 forward from West Virginia. Given how Alexander's athleticism has just blown away observers during recent workouts, his stock is soaring, and the buzz surrounding him is growing. Would be a great score for the Blazers, although I'd be surprised if Alexander is available at 13. Regardless, a quality rotation player will be.

Here's one look at a potential Blazers rotation:

Starters: Oden, Aldridge, Webster, Roy, Fernandez.
Reserves: Outlaw, Jack, Alexander, Frye, Przybilla.

Things are definitely looking up in Portland.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Celtics-Lakers -- Game 1 analysis

Aside from a few short stretches, the Celtics made sure Game 1 was played to their liking: methodical, efficient and with hard hats. Boston was locked in defensively, rarely out of position, and committed to making life difficult for Kobe Bryant and even more difficult for his teammates.

Even with the attention given to Bryant, the Celtics didn't surrender the 3-point line as the Lakers connected on just 3 of 14 from beyond the arc.

Boston won the battle of the boards, 46-33, but the margin seemed even wider. Even on those 33 rebounds, the Lakers had trouble securing many of them cleanly as the Celtics, even guards Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen, crashed in from the wings in search of loose balls. LA never moved Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe or P.J. Brown out of the paint.

Game 1 was a blueprint for Boston to win games in this series. The Lakers, meanwhile, must get tougher inside, move the ball quicker on offense, and look to get out and run.

Celtics-Lakers join elite company

Boston won 66 games. With Pau Gasol in the lineup, Los Angeles was 22-5, which projects to 66.8 wins. Prior to this season, on only 10 occasions had teams won 66 or more games. It's quite an accomplishment. Here's a look at those 10 teams and how their seasons ended:

Year Team----Record----Outcome
1967 76ers-------68-13-----won title
1971 Bucks-------66-16----won title
1972 Lakers------69-13----won title
1973 Celtics------68-14-----lost East finals
1986 Celtics------67-15-----won title
1992 Bulls--------67-15-----won title
1996 Bulls--------72-10-----won title
1997 Bulls--------69-13-----won title
2000 Lakers-----67-15-----won title
2007 Mavs-------67-15-----lost first round

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Celtics-Lakers -- Finals Preview

The Celtics were 66-16 during the regular season. The Lakers were 22-5 with Pau Gasol in the lineup (67-15 pace). Never have two teams with this many victories squared off for the title.

Boston also turned in one of the greatest seasons ever at the defensive end of the floor, ranking first in field-goal defense, 3-point defense and efficiency (fewest points per 100 possessions).

The Celtics' main concern, however, is that their offense has become rather ordinary in the postseason. As a result, they are just 12-8 in the playoffs, struggling to close out the Hawks and Cavs in seven games each.

In short, Boston has not shown much of that 66-win form. A big reason why is the drop in production from Ray Allen, whose numbers are down across the board (17.4 points, 44.5 FG%, 39.8 3FG% to 14.2, 40.3, 34.0). Without an effective Allen, the Celtics struggle to score.

The Lakers, meanwhile, are rolling. In the 27 regular-season games with Gasol, LA outscored its foes by a bunch: +11.6 per game. In the playoffs, the Lakers are 12-3 overall (8-0 home, 4-3 road). The scoring margin is down a bit, but still impressive at +6.4. In order, they've dispatched of the Nuggets (a 50-win team and a formidable eight-seed), the Jazz (nearly unbeatable at home and a pick by many to win it all), and the defending champions, the Spurs.

LA's offense is clicking. Kobe is getting his numbers, but for the most part, he's doing it within the offense, which means Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Derek Fisher, etc., are more effective, too. Given the focus on the offense, the Lakers' defense has sailed under the radar, but it's better than advertised.

This series is LA's to lose. Boston's defense has been so tough all year, but the Celtics haven't seen an offense this dialed in with post options, shooters and the best player on the planet. Look for Fisher to lock in on Allen. As we've seen, a shutdown there makes Boston's offense predictable and stagnant. It would absolutely shock me if the Celtics beat LA four times in seven games.

Lakers in 6

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Pistons fire Saunders

The Detroit Pistons firing of coach Flip Saunders essentially boiled down to one reason: Saunders was the reason Detroit failed get back to the NBA Finals and/or win a title during his three seasons.

In other words, GM Joe Dumars, who wasn't going to fire himself, felt that the roster he put together was right, that is was good enough to win, and that it was Saunders fault it didn't.

Dumars was wrong on all three accounts.

Essentially with the core of guards Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton, and forwards Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace, the Pistons have reached the Eastern Conference finals six consecutive seasons. In four of those seasons, they lost in that round. Two other times, both under Larry Brown, the Pistons reached the NBA Finals. In 2004 they won the championship. Brown left after the 2005 season.

Enter Saunders, a good coach (certainly in the league's top third) with a mind for offense. It seemed like a good fit. In Saunders' three seasons, the Pistons won 64, 53 and 59 games. At times, Detroit's offense opened up. Other times, it bogged down just as it had under Brown. More troubling, however, was the fact that the Pistons' collective attitude was still amiss. Not all the time, but at inopportune times. Whether it was Wallace's lack of effort, Prince's aloofness, or Billups' arrogance, this team never seemed to have the right harmony, the right chemistry. Despite the championship, this wasn't a problem that Brown was able to fix. Saunders wasn't able to either.

Dumars and Saunders together deserve credit for drafting well and developing youngsters Rodney Stuckey and Jason Maxiell, both of whom are ready for greater roles, thus making it easier to break up the core group.

But until Dumars actually pulls the trigger on a deal, the Pistons will head down the same path for their new coach: alternating between impressive and maddening. Ultimately, however, they'll continue to fall short.

Dumars announced the decision by saying, "it's time for a new voice to lead our team." Dumars would have been better served with a new team to hear Saunders' voice.

Time for a roster change is now. The coach was fine.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Yao Ming and the Olympics

Yao Ming's NBA season ended in late February because of a stress fracture in his left foot. Yao had screws placed in the foot on March 3. Recovery time for such an injury is approximately four months. In this case that would be July. Under normal circumstances, a team would push out that timetable a bit further to take advantage of the offseason. These, however, aren't normal circumstances.

Yao is China's most famous athlete, and with the Summer Olympics in Beijing starting in August, a lot of people -- oh roughly, 1/5 of the world's population -- are counting on him to be there, leading the country's basketball team, giving its people something to cheer about and rally around in the wake of tragedy. In addition, the economic impact of Yao's participation is monumental.

The Rockets, meanwhile, also have invested a lot in Yao, who is under contract for $15 million in 2009, $16.3 million in 2010, and $17.7 million in 2011. If I owned the Rockets, a significant part of me would dread Yao playing in these games so soon after the injury. I might even seek compensation for his participation. I realize this isn't a likely possibility due to the prior agreement between China and the Rockets that permits him to play in the United States.

Yao will play because it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It's also the right thing to do.

But for the Rockets it's also scary.