Celtics can make winning case, too
I understand why almost everybody is picking the Lakers, but the talk is getting carried away. The mistake is to believe that the Finals won't be competitive, and that the Celtics have no chance.
I understand that the Lakers have the MVP in Kobe Bryant -- the best player on the court usually wins the Finals -- and the wisest, most accomplished coach in Phil Jackson. The Lakers not only have been the highest-scoring team in the playoffs at 105.9 points a game, but they've also tightened their field-goal defense to yield 43.3 percent shooting in the postseason -- just 1.2 percent behind the league-leading Celtics.
All season I was picking Detroit to beat Boston in the Eastern Conference finals, so understand that I've been skeptical of the Celtics in the postseason. If they struggled so badly in the early rounds against Atlanta and Cleveland, then how could they ever beat a superior team like the Lakers?
Here are two things I've come to realize about these Celtics: First, they needed those extra opening-round games in order to learn how to play together as a postseason team. As pointed out numerous times here, the Celtics are trying to become the first "overhauled'' team to win the championship in its initial year (i.e. no team has ever been champion with two new players among its three leading scorers, as the Celtics are seeking to accomplish with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen).
Second, the Celtics should be judged more so by their recent successes against Detroit than by their failures against Atlanta and Cleveland. It's no fluke that Paul Pierce established himself as leader of the offense against the Pistons, or that Ray Allen found a useful role as a secondary playmaker and shooter from the seams. The Celtics needed all 20 of their postseason games to develop those strengths, and they can be expected to carry that offensive hierarchy into the Finals against the Lakers.
While the Celtics must worry about guarding Bryant and his fellow scorers (see below), the Lakers will have their own concerns defensively. Who is going to guard Pierce? If he approaches each contest as if it's a Game 7, if he establishes his game early by driving to the basket instead of settling for three-pointers, then he is going to cause matchup problems for the Lakers. And because he has become such a good passer, he'll create shots for Allen and the others. The Celtics obviously need big performances from their three stars, but they're capable of developing them so long as Pierce is aggressive.
The last three rounds have shown that Garnett is going to get his points. Pierce needs to be -- and can be -- the star of this series for the Celtics, and in that case Allen will have opportunities to finish from the perimeter as he did in the last two games against the Pistons. It's a good bet that the Lakers are more worried about losing to Pierce and Allen than they are of Garnett beating them offensively.
The strength the Celtics carry into these Finals is their No. 1-rated defense. I asked several coaches about Boston's defense at the NBA predraft camp last week in Orlando, and they all pointed out that the Celtics have the size and length to execute the defensive tenets that assistant coach Tom Thibodeau developed while working the last decade for Jeff Van Gundy.
The Celtics get two or three defenders back in transition to prevent easy baskets. In the half-court, they keep the ball out of the paint and shrink the floor by loading defenders to the strong side. Though they often leave shooters open on the far side of the court, the Celtics are excellent at sprinting across the floor to close out and contest jump shots -- which is how they were able to lead the league in three-point field-goal defense (31.6 percent) as well as overall field-goal defense (41.9 percent).