For the 12th time in our illustrious history, my Boston Celtics are about to meet the Los Angeles Lakers to decide this season’s NBA championship. With all the talk about renewing the playoff “rivalry” between the two franchises, I, as a lifelong Red Sox fan, finally understood why Yankees fans used to laugh at the idea when it came to Sox/Yanks prior to 2004: for a playoff rivalry to exist, the head-to-head record has to be close. The Celtics’ tally against the Lakers in the Finals is 9-2, making the relationship more like big brother/little brother than rivals. This year’s Celtics victory in 5 or 6 games will basically cement the Lakers’ little brother status, a position Kobe Bryant should be used to after riding Shaq O’Neal’s coattails on the way to (ahem) winning three rings between 2000 and 20002.
For you local fans who haven’t seen it since Hall of Famers O’Neal, Karl Malone, Gary Payton, and Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson left the Lakers in Kobe’s ball-hogging hands back in 2004, please note the way Boston plays basketball as a team game. Our “Core Four” of Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett each attempted about 12 shots per game this season and scored between 12 and 18 points. These guys are all capable of scoring 30 on any given night, but they know a championship-winning offense has to be balanced so they share the ball. I realize that passing the rock to a teammate with a better shot at the basket is a foreign concept in this town, but the 17 banners hanging from the rafters of the Garden in Boston prove it works.
Another thing my Celtics do that the average Lakers fan wouldn’t recognize is we take pride in playing individual and team defense. By contrast, Bryant and the mercurial Ron Artest are the only Los Angeles players who can be counted on to play hard when their team doesn’t have the ball. Derek Fisher is too slow, Andrew Bynum is too banged-up, and the soft Spaniard Pau Gasol is best known for playing “matador” defense — where he reaches for the ball then pulls his hands out of the way as the opposing player charges past him like a bull. In the 2010 playoffs, Boston’s team defense has held opponents to about 90 points per game despite the presence of prolific scorers like Dwayne Wade, LeBron James, and Dwight Howard. The Lakers as a team allow over 100 points per game and gave up 115 and 118 points in their most recent losses to the Phoenix Suns. Needless to say, that kind of defensive effort won’t get it done when the Lakers offense will struggle to score 95 against the Celtics.
Lakers fans will be surprised when their team loses (again), but none of this will get through L.A.’s collective cognitive dissonance because they have Kobe; and in their basketball ignorance, Lakers fans have come to believe that one consistently super-human player can win a title by himself. I would remind them that this player lost game 4 against OKC by pouting instead of shooting, missed a game-winning shot in game 6 of that series (Gasol’s miracle put-back won the game), missed a game-winning shot in game 5 against Phoenix (Artest’s miracle put-back won the game), and either of those series could have gone to a game 7 where the Lakers would have been a few bad bounces or breaks away from elimination.
To win a playoff series, whether it was against the No. 8 seed Thunder or the No. 3 seed Suns, the Lakers needed Kobe to play out of his mind and they needed some kind of miracle. To beat this Celtics team, the Lakers will also need a sustained team defensive effort and they will need Kobe to share the ball. The only way the Celtics lose is if Kobe is unstoppable AND the Lakers get at least one miracle AND play 48 minutes of team defense in every game AND Kobe voluntarily gives up shots to someone else. Of those four elements, the only thing Lakers fans can count on is Bryant’s offensive output. That will win you one game, maybe two, but not a championship.
Once this series is over and the C’s take the Larry O’Brien trophy on another Duck Tour of Boston, it won’t take very long for basketball fans everywhere to look at two Celtics championships in 2008 and 2010 interrupted by a Lakers championship in 2009 and start asking some questions. What happened to the 2009 Celtics? Kevin Garnett was injured during the playoffs. If Garnett had been healthy, would Boston have played L.A. in the Finals? Yes. If the Lakers couldn’t beat the Celtics in 2008 or 2010, should anyone believe they would have beaten a healthy Boston team in 2009? No. So, were the Lakers the best team in the NBA in 2009? We’ll never know.
As a lover of the game of basketball, a fan of the premiere franchise in NBA history, and a card-carrying member of the Kobe Hater’s Club, the only thing better than winning the championship this year will be putting an asterisk next to the Lakers 2009 championship in the process.
Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider with four-quadrant crossover appeal who hopes Lakers fans will appreciate losing to a team with four future Hall of Famers, all among the best in the NBA at their position, and all playing at or near the top of their game. His past columns are archived at www.ifyoumissedit.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.