The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers were supposed to be too old to contend for an NBA title, not to mention too thin on the bench. They may still be, but each team looks every bit the contender—maybe not favorite, but contender—as the opening of the playoffs looms next Saturday. TheSportsNotebook takes a look at the NBA’s two traditional powers…
Boston Celtics (37-26): On March 23 the Celts lost at Philadelphia by thirteen points, another case of Boston getting close in the Atlantic Division and then losing decisively to the Sixers. It seemed to underscore that the C’s would not compete for anything more than the right to get swept home by Chicago or Miami in the first round. But things turned decisively for the better at that point. Boston has won 12 of its last 16, including two wins over Miami, a win at Indiana and an Easter night blowout of Philadelphia that put the Celtics in command of the Atlantic Division. The division title and #4 seed in the playoffs are wrapped up, and Boston won’t catch Indiana for #3, so this regular season is all but in the books.
It was the time-honored calling card of defense that did it for the Celtics, showing that if you stop opponents long enough, eventually the wins will follow. The offense is still a problem and the rebounding positively atrocious, but the team defensive effort keeps Boston in every game and the veterans can make enough plays to win down the stretch. Paul Pierce overcame a slow start where he was out of shape after the lockout and is again a 20 ppg scorer. Rajon Rondo is leading the NBA in assists. Kevin Garnett has found his shooting stroke and his season-long average of 16 ppg doesn’t reflect that he’s played his best basketball of late. Ray Allen gives 14 a night and hits 45 percent from behind the arc. The big surprise this team has gotten came when Allen was out with a sprained ankle and 21-year-old Avery Johnson stepped up. Johnson doesn’t have Allen’s long-range accuracy, but he defends and he hits 51 percent from two-point range, giving Doc Rivers some needed youth off the bench.
Power forward is a weak spot, with Brandon Bass only averaging six rebounds a game and the Celtics could use small forward Mickael Pietrus to recover from concussion and knee problems in time to make a contribution for the playoffs and give Pierce a breather on occasion. But with each passing day it looks less likely Pietrus can be a factor.
Even though I’m a Celtics fan, it’s difficult for me to see a title contender in this group. The rebounding is too bad and the depth non-existent. But when you’ve got veterans who play good enough defense to keep yourself in games, and are playing your best basketball at the end of the season, that’s reason enough for hope. There’s more of that than anyone could have expected a month ago.
Los Angeles Lakers (40-23): The Lakers have been steady all season long, and after a home loss to Oklahoma City on March 29, they’ve picked up the pace. Los Angeles has won seven of its last ten, including a split with San Antonio and wins over the playoff-bound Clippers, Mavericks and Nuggets. The final three games of the season still have meaning. If you want to talk pride, the Lakers are plus one game on the Clippers for the Pacific Division title. If you want to talk homecourt, the Lakers are two and a half games up on Memphis, who hopes to run down either of the LA teams and get the #4 seed. So a schedule that has a road trip to San Antonio tonight, a home game with Oklahoma City on Sunday and a season wrap-up with Sacramento next week is still a very big deal for Kobe & Crew.
Bryant isn’t getting nearly the love he should in the MVP conversation. He’s taken on a huge load in terms of minutes, led the league in scoring at 28 ppg and essentially held a team of backcourt mediocrities in the league’s more competitive conference. I’m not saying I’d pick him over LeBron or Durant—I’ll make up my mind next week when we wrap the regular season—but he certainly should be in the discussion. His backcourt maters are the unproductive vet Steve Blake, and Ramon Sessions. The latter has some promise, at age 26 and dishing six assists per game. Perhaps the Lakers have found the right backcourt combo in time for the playoffs.
Up front the team is anchored by Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, each churning out the numbers in points, rebounds and blocks. Collectively, the pair is good for 36/22/3 each night, which is more than enough to compensate for an unproductive small forward spot of Matt Barnes and Metta World Peace (for those who tune the NBA out prior to the playoffs, Metta World Peace is the man formerly known as Ron Artest. Yes, the one who once charged into the stands in Indiana to beat up a fan is now a man of world peace. I suppose I shouldn’t complain that someone has change, but a less self-aggrandizing way of doing it would have been refreshing).
The Lakers face the same problem as the Celtics—they’re heavily dependent on a small group of players, and none of them are as young as Dwayne Wade or LeBron James. But unlike Wade and LeBron, the Celtics and Laker vets have won titles together. And if they get close, don’t you think it’s at least possible David Stern might see the storyline possibilities and help out with a favorable call or two or three in a big game? There’s a reason both the East and West should be nervous that the giants have arisen.