It’s come down to a coin flip for the NBA Finals. When the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics tip off Game Seven on Thursday night, it’ll be just the third time since 1994 that the NBA Finals has required a deciding game. And for the NBA and its fans, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
After a second consecutive failed attempt at a Lebron/Kobe Finals matchup, the league was delighted to settle for an old school brawl between Boston and Los Angeles. The Lakers and Celtics remain as the two best teams in the NBA, headed for a one-game elimination to settle the score for the championship title. Perfect!
Despite both clubs dealing with key injuries to their starting center positions, plenty of star power remains for Thursday’s game in what could turn into a record breaker for viewership ratings.
“You know it’s Lakers-Celtics, the biggest rivalry in NBA basketball, seven games. It is what it is,” Boston point guard Rajon Rondo told Boston.com when asked about Thursday’s title clincher.
Multiple sources have already confirmed that Celtic center Kendrick Perkins will miss Game Seven after spraining his knee on Tuesday. With Perkins out for the Celtics, the Lakers will probably have to endure another injury-riddled effort from starting big Andrew Bynum. Bynum has gutted it out so far through the Finals with a knee injury but left the second half of Game Six after complaining of stiffness in his leg. With a championship on the line, Bynum is fully expected to give it one more go.
Boston will be expected to give it one more go after a poor performance in Tuesday’s 89-67 loss. The Celtics were outrebounded 52-39 and scored just the second-lowest point total in NBA Finals history. But Game Six for the Celtics is exactly that at this point, history. With their eyes focused on Game Seven, Boston will be expected to lay it all out on the line for the last time this season.
“To me, the game (Game Six) is over,” Rondo told reporters. “We have one game (left). They have one game. All or nothing. (Game Six) is in the past.”
If the Lakers and Celtics’ past is any indication, Los Angeles could be in trouble. The Lakers and Celtics have played in four Game Sevens over the course of their 11 previous Finals matchups, with Boston winning all four. Although the two clubs haven’t played in a deciding final game since 1984, Boston still owns the edge in the series 9-2.
While the Celtics have the history, the Lakers have Bryant. The four-time champion will try to extend his ring count to five with a win and further add to an already stellar legacy. But maybe more important than adding to his hardware collection will be inducing confidence to a Lakers team that has appeared rattled at times during the series.
“We’re used to being in must-win situations,” Bryant told reporters. “The way we look at it, (Game seven) is just a game we’ve got to win. I know what’s at stake but I’m not tripping.”
Bryant doesn’t have to “trip,” the NBA’s fan base will be head over heels for Thursday’s Game Seven; The league’s ultimate elimination game between a pair of the league’s ultimate franchises.
“This is what it’s all about,” Glen “Big Baby” Davis told reporters. “This is what you guys are going to talk about for years. You guys are going to remember this moment. You are going to remember Thursday forever. I can’t wait. I can’t wait to step up on the floor and win here in L.A.”
Confidence at its strongest. Perfect for a NBA Finals series at its most storied.
When Rajon Rondo shoved Ron Artest with 4:41 remaining in the second quarter of the Celtics’ 92-86 Game 5 victory on Sunday, it triggered a role reversal that played out for the rest of the night. With less than five minutes remaining in the quarter, Rondo attacked the Lakers on a fast break, setting up Boston center Kendrick Perkins who later dished off to a cutting Kevin Garnett. Garnett was then shoved to the ground by Artest on a hard foul, prompting Rondo to push Artest in retaliation after the whistle was blown. Rondo received a technical foul for his exploits but his team received a shot in the arm for his courage.
With his team leading 34-31 in the second period, here’s Rondo —the second smallest member of the Celtics’ rotation— shoving Artest — arguably the Lakers’ best defender and most physical player— to the side like he’s two inches shorter than him. Rondo’s push, followed by a profanity-laced reprimand of Artest, showed the Celtics’ heart and passion and was just one of a series of plays that helped to mentally subdue two of the Lakers’ most important players for another contest.
Highlighted by 6-foot-4 reserve guard Tony Allen’s block on Laker seven-footer Pau Gasol in bottom of the third quarter, the Celtics out-muscled and out-played the Lakers for a second consecutive game. Gasol, who went on record after his 23-point, 14-rebound performance in Game 1 to say “Garnett has lost a step,” was stuffed three times in the period. One by Allen that left him on the floor and two others by Garnett, the same player who had “lost a step.”
In fact, Garnett has actually gained a few steps over the past few contests, averaging 19.6 points per game in the last three outings. Light years more effective than the 11 points per game Garnett struggled to score in the series first two games. Garnett’s inspired containment of Gasol (15.3 points per game the last three meetings, 12 points and 12 rebounds in Game 5) has helped swing the series in Boston’s advantage but it was Rondo’s shove that swung the series momentum.
Artest, known for his bruising style of in-your-face defense, was pushed by Rondo and later torched by Paul Pierce for 27 points while the Laker forward could only muster a seven-point, 2-of-9 shooting performance. Since churning in a strong Game 1 with 15 points and two steals, Artest has bottomed out over the last few games (like Gasol). Artest has averaged just six points per game and is shooting a wretched 24 percent from the field, connecting on 8-of-33 field goals in his last four games.
Artest was acquired by the Lakers last summer to be their hired hit man; their bruiser sort to speak. After his first career Finals game, Boston has now turned Los Angeles’ biggest offseason acquisition into its biggest goat and a player that Lakers coach Phil Jackson has to strongly consider lessening minutes for at this point.
Gasol and Artest aren’t the only two reasons why the Lakers now find themselves down 3-2 and one game away from another Celtics’ championship. However, Los Angeles cannot afford to have two of their core players physically and mentally manhandled again in Game 6 if the Lakers want to even the series.
You have to commend Boston coach Doc Rivers for not giving into politics during the Celtics’ 96-89 win in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night. With reserves Glen “Big Baby” Davis and Nate Robinson providing electricity off the bench, Rivers had a chance to pull the plug on the show midway through the final period but declined. As he should have.
With Lakers center Andrew Bynum tied to the bench with a knee injury, Rivers wasn’t up against the size disadvantage that he’s faced throughout the first three games of the series, meaning his shorter reserves like Davis (who’s outplayed starting forward Kevin Garnett at times throughout this year’s playoffs) were able to see extended minutes. Bynum’s knee injury going forward could and possibly should result in more minutes for Davis. He’s the only Boston big who appears content with attacking Los Angeles downlow and rather bang than settle for a jumpshot.
But while a vote for extended action for Davis is obvious, Robinson also deserves to be in the running for an increased workload. His perimeter shooting opens up the court for Boston’s half court offense and allows one-on-one specialists Davis, Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen more room to operate in isolation. It’s clear that Robinson is no where near the playmaking point guard that Rondo is but the long distance shooting and scoring that Robinson provides over Rondo is unmistakable.
Before Thursday night, Rivers had played Rondo 40, 42 and 42 minutes through the series’ first three games and received modest but unconvincing numbers from his star point guard. Aside from a 13-minute, scoreless performance in the Game 1 (where the whole team played poorly), Robinson has given the Celtics 24 points in just 29 minutes of playing time in the last three contests. Even Senators haven’t campaigned harder for more face time than Robinson has this past week.
It remains questionable why Rivers hasn’t ran more of a Rondo-Robinson backcourt at times, especially when Lakers coach Phil Jackson is playing some combination of Shannon Brown, Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar as his guard set. While Rondo and Robinson are both small in stature, they play bigger than their size, collecting rebounds and blocking shots (Robinson’s block on Dwight Howard in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals was athleticism at its finest).
Rivers’ reluctance to play the 6-foot-8 Davis heavy minutes against Bynum and Pau Gasol through the first three games was understandable but his reluctance to play Robinson however is something he’ll need to rethink going forward. Now that the complexity of the series has changed drastically with Bynum’s availability for the remainder of the series in serious doubt, it should allow Rivers to be more creative with his bench. Robinson, Davis, Tony Allen and Rasheed Wallace played fantastic during Game 4 and have played solid overall during the Finals as well.
If Garnett, Ray Allen, Rondo and Pierce continue their inconsistent play, Rivers should continue to avoid NBA politics and rely on his reserves if he wants to avoid losing the 2010 championship election.
The Boston Celtics evened their series with the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday night courtesy of a dominant performance from their backcourt. Highlighted by Ray Allen’s endless three parade and Rajon Rondo’s triple double, the Celtics’ starting guards combined for 51 points, 15 rebounds, 12 assists and connected on 9-of-12 shooting from beyond the arc. While the Celtics were able to escape Los Angeles with a 1-1 series split, concern has to be brewing in Beantown.
Maybe even more impressive than the performance of Boston’s backcourt was the play of the Lakers’ frontcourt of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Los Angeles’ twin towers dominated for the second game in a row, tag teaming for a 46-point, 13-block effort.
The Lakers’ length has definitely been giving the Celtics trouble inside and it really showed on Sunday. Most troubling for Boston is that the matchup between Gasol and Kevin Garnett has been largely one-sided so far. Gasol exposed Garnett in both games at the Staples Center, going off for 48 points, 22 rebounds, nine blocks and six assists compared to Garnett’s 22 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
There was a point in time when Garnett’s two-game total would’ve been generated in one outing but that time seems ages ago at this point. Garnett’s Game Two effort of six points and six rebounds was badly overshadowed by Gasol’s 25-point, eight-rebound and six-block display. Even Bynum added 21 points and controlled the Celtics’ half court offense for much of the night with seven blocks. Bynum’s presence has been in full effect in both games so far but his showing in Game Two was nothing short of brilliant.
Allen’s hot hand was key for Boston because his long distance attempts were the only shots that Gasol or Bynum were too far away from to swat down. But unless Allen can keep up the flawless jumpshot sessions, the Celtics can ill afford to continue to be dominated in the frontcourt battle.
Allen’s a great shooter but his otherworldly precision shouldn’t be expected to continue throughout the series and Boston head coach Doc Rivers may have a crisis developing with Garnett’s sudden slump and reserve forward Rasheed Wallace’s inspired play.
Rivers could’ve easily played Wallace in favor of Garnett down the stretch of Game Two and probably would’ve avoided much criticism. Garnett had been a walking corpse until the final period before rewarding Rivers with a strong finish and helping the Celtics coach avoid a crucial decision for another night at least.
One of Boston’s best traits during their three-year run has been their collective selflessness. The Celtics have no problem taking advantage of whatever matchup that’s working in their favor. They don’t force-feed a bad matchup for the sake of getting a guy on the stat sheet, that’s not their M.O. The ability to attack with either their frontcourt or backcourt is one of the luxuries that the team has enjoyed in eight of the 10 playoff series they’ve been in since ’08.
The few times that the Celtics didn’t have that luxury were against Orlando in the ’09 semifinals and now. Boston lost that series against Orlando as their starting power forward/center combo of Perkins and Glen Davis (who was subbing in for an absent Garnett) was upstaged by the Magic’s Rashard Lewis/Dwight Howard combination as Orlando won the last two games of the series.
The Celtics frontcourt has been outplayed again so far in this series but they have a 1-1 split to show for it. But Boston also led Orlando 3-2 before eventually succumbing to the Magic’s matchup advantage and if the Celtics starting bigs don’t play light years better in Boston, a similar fate could be in store.
A 30-point game from Kobe Bryant was to be expected. A 15-point, two steal performance from Ron Artest; no surprise. It was Pau Gasol — the same player who received much criticism from his 2008 NBA Finals performance— that provided the unexpected in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night. Gasol’s 23 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks set the tone for the Lakers inside in their 102-89 win, a far cry from the power forward/center who was called “soft” after the Celtics manhandled him two seasons ago.
“I thought the Lakers were clearly the more physical team today,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said in the postgame press conference. “I thought they were more aggressive. I thought they attacked us the entire night. I didn’t think we handled it very well. They killed us on the glass.”
Physical is a word that has eluded Gasol since that fateful ’08 Finals meeting when the Celtics pushed and powered him out the way on their way to a 17th title. Gasol was barely into his fifth month with the Lakers after being acquired from the Memphis Grizzlies earlier that season in February. Two years later, Gasol, 29, is well versed in the Lakers’ triangle offense and 1B to Bryant’s 1A in terms of importance to Los Angeles’ success.
But just how important is Gasol? The facts tell more than just the whole story. After Shaquille O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat following the 2003 season and the three championships he helped bring to Los Angeles, the Lakers slumped to a 149 -141 regular season record over the next three and a half seasons. The Lakers missed the playoffs once and were ousted in the first round in two consecutive seasons before Gasol’s arrival. Since trading for Gasol, Los Angeles is 130-37 in the regular season with him in the lineup and Thursday night marked their third consecutive NBA Finals appearance.
On Thursday night, Gasol, with the help of gimpy center Andrew Bynum (who missed the ’08 Finals with a knee injury), proved their worth against the supposedly more physical Celtics. The Lakers outscored Boston on second chance points 16-0. Outscored Boston in the paint 48-30 and held a 42-31 edge in rebounds. Gasol matched the Celtics’ top four big men in rebounds by himself 14-14. If the Lakers’ bigs are supposed to be “soft,” they certainly didn’t show it in the series opener.
If Gasol continues to post 23 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks a game during his third Finals run, the Lakers will be in good position to win their second consecutive title and critics may eventually have to think about relabeling Gasol. That “soft” moniker appears to be wearing thin these days.
The Lakers and Celtics are set to tip off this Thursday for the 12th time in NBA Finals history. Boston owns the edge in the series with a 9-2 record and the Celtics fully expect to extend that mark by one more at the conclusion of the title round. But Kobe Bryant and the rest of the Lakers are the defending champs and will be heading into this rematch of the 2008 Finals with a little redemption in the back of their minds.
Maybe the telling sign of an excellent matchup is the varied opinions on who the winner will be. The AFRO sports desk has been at it all week over who will close the 2009-2010 season as NBA champions. Stephen D. Riley says Boston. Perry Green says Los Angeles. The AFRO says read their back and fourth debate.
SDR: Celtics will win in six games. Boston’s defense has been unbelievable so far this postseason. They’ve dealt with big time scorers LeBron James and Dwayne Wade and contained superstar big men past and present in Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard. They’ll formulate a gameplan to contain another terrifying wing scorer in Kobe and limit Pau Gasol, just like they did in 2008. Boston’s rotation is 10 deep and it’s full of defensive-minded guys with things to prove. The Celtics have the size and toughness to make things problematic for the finesse Lakers.
PG: The Celtics may have the tools to beat the finesse version of the Lakers but this isn’t 2008 and L.A. isn’t exactly a soft push over anymore. Boston may have contained Shaq and Howard but neither of those “supermen” can score the rock as well as Gasol can. There isn’t a better scoring big man in the league than Gasol, who will be able to play his natural power forward position, unlike 2008 when he was forced to center due to an injured Andrew Bynum. With Bynum on the court, L.A. has two 7-footers to match up with the Celtics’ size. Not to mention 6-foot-11 star Lamar Odom will offer support off the bench while Ron Artest, the best perimeter defender in the NBA, will make the Lakers a very tough team to beat. Lakers win the series in seven games.
SDR: The thing that makes Los Angeles so tough is their twin towers in the middle with Bynum and Gasol but Bynum (just like in 2008) is hobbled with a knee injury. His minutes have decreased in each round of the playoffs from 29.7 in round one, 24.8 in round two to a paltry 18.2 in the Western finals. A gimpy knee against a physical Boston team spells trouble for Bynum and the rest of the Lakers. Kevin Garnett has the offensive game to attack Gasol in the post and get him in foul trouble. If that happens then the Lakers’ strength suddenly becomes a weakness and if Odom has to defend Garnett and/or Rasheed Wallace in the post on a regular basis it could become a long series for L.A, 2008 all over again.
PG: But there’s a difference between not playing at all and simply playing banged up. Bynum was completely absent from the 2008 Finals but trust and believe he will play this time around. And with an opportunity to help L.A. seek revenge from ’08 that may be enough motivation to mentally overcome his banged up knee and get the job done. Let’s not forget Paul Pierce was the hero of the series in ’08 but this time he’ll be guarded by either the very physical Artest or Bryant. Both are as good as it gets at defending swing forwards, which gives L.A. an advantage.
SDR: There’s also a difference between playing major minutes and being a liability. You would be wishing upon a star to expect Bynum to contribute anything significant in this series. Yes, his presence will help to provide a big body but he won’t be out there in the stretch of the game and he won’t be out there in the closing minutes of the game. Artest or Kobe checking Pierce could limit Boston’s main scorer but this is Rajon Rondo’s team now and the Lakers don’t have a point guard on the roster who can contain him. Bryant checked Rondo exclusively in ’08 but he won’t have that luxury again. Boston goes as Rondo goes and he flat out annihilated Jameer Nelson and Mo Williams (All-Star point guards in ’08) and he’ll do the same to Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar.
PG: I agree, Rondo is the real deal, and may be the best overall player left in the postseason besides Kobe. But that still shouldn’t worry the Lakers. Fact is, L.A. has eliminated the Suns, Thunder and Jazz, three teams with three excellent point guards. Some would argue that Jazz guard Deron Williams is the best point guard in the league and Steve Nash is a two-time MVP. Fisher had to defend both of them just to get to this point and was embarrassed at times by their excellent skill. Yet L.A. still survived, nonetheless, mainly because of one player: Kobe Bryant. The “Black Mamba” has been playing in a league of his own the entire playoffs, scoring at least 30 points in 10 of the last 11 games. The man simply cannot be stopped on his quest of stamping his legacy as perhaps the greatest player in Lakers’ history. Good luck on trying to halt him, Boston. They’ll need it.
SDR: Fisher was carved up repeatedly in the first three rounds but the Lakers survived because of mitigating circumstances. The Thunders’ lack of experience, the Jazz’s lack of healthy bodies and the Suns’ lack of defense. Boston will come equipped with all three elements plus a point guard who can attack. Plain and simple, the Celtics are built to beat the Lakers; an attacking point guard, a slew of tall defensive minded big men who can shoot and draw Gasol and Bynum away from the rim and a pair of scorers in Pierce and Ray Allen who can make Bryant work throughout the course of the series. Kobe ‘s been playing out of his mind so far this postseason but he hasn’t had to work defensively. All three of Boston’s primary scorers could make life miserable for Bryant. Allen will run him off screens and Pierce will make him work while Rondo will attack with his speed.
PG: But Kobe doesn’t mind working. He had to work defensively against the great scoring of Kevin Durant and also had to work to stop excellent scorers like the Suns’ Jason Richardson and Grant Hill. Like Boston, the Suns also played tremendous defense down the stretch of the postseason, a prime example being their dominance against the Spurs during the Western Conference semifinals. But L.A. still prevailed. Point is, this series will be tightly competed and both teams have a great shot at winning it all. But my money is on the defending champs.
Blowouts, buzzer beaters and upsets. If you caught any of last weekend’s conference tournament games then you saw it all. You saw why Evan Turner is the best player in college basketball and why guys like John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins are special freshmen. You saw how momentum in basketball games can switch at the drop of a dime and why coaches get paid top dollar to reel in fancy recruits and lead their schools to victory.
It was basketball in its purest form, minus the stretch limos and overbearing personalities of professional city teams. I mean sure there’s a John Calipari here or a Lance Stephenson there but it doesn’t get any better than the NCAA come March. College basketball in the spring is a dangerous combination. You can have your NBA Finals in June and your World Series and NFL Playoffs, they just don’t measure up to tournament time.
There’s something unique and innocent about March Madness. The games are played during the day while you’re at work trying to get a peak on the cafeteria television at your favorite team. You fall in love with schools whose location on a map you can’t identify quickly. You lose every year but still play the office and online brackets hoping for some luck. Why? Because March Madness strickens everybody, not just you or your neighbor and coworkers, that’s why!
And what is it? Just what is it that makes March Madness so attractive? Well, for starters, everyone has a chance to win. Yes you Morgan State University. Yes you Georgetown University. And yes you the University of Maryland College Park. Three schools so vastly different in so many ways but all in this thing together that we call March Madness.
It’s crazy. The love affair with your alma mater never dies. Whether you wore a school’s colors when you were in line at its college bookstore or because grandma caught a Christmas sale, everybody has a favorite school come March. When they lose you sulk and when they win you gain an extra day of color donning and smack talking. It’s that simple.
Look high and low, you’ll never find a greater sports playoff system than the NCAA’s version. Other sports do you wrong. One loss during college football’s regular season and a school might as well call it quits. The NBA Finals has proven that you can just nickel and trade your way to championships. The Super Bowl often fails to match its hype. You won’t see the two best boxers fight each other because one’s scared of getting hit and the MLB is still flipping through drug tests from ten years ago.
So March Madness it is. Not to say the NCAA is the epitome of stainless steel but at least you won’t find as many blemishes as those other sports. Sure football has the country in a chokehold right now but even the hardest of pigskin lovers wouldn’t turn away from a good NCAA tournament game.
Poor you if you missed this past weekend’s games. They had everything you could look for in a sport and everything you probably won’t find elsewhere. But don’t worry, last weekend was just a preview. Hopefully, you’ll get to rewitness all the sights, sounds and sizzles for another few weeks. Enjoy it while you can. March Madness doesn’t happen often but when it does, you have to take notice.