by Hayden Alfano
Tonight in Boston, the National Basketball Association (NBA) Finals will tip off. The Boston Celtics, representing the Eastern Conference, face the Western Conference champion Los Angeles Lakers in a best-of-seven-game series.
To put it crassly, this matchup is the NBA’s wet dream. Lakers-Celtics is the league’s premier rivalry, steeped in history (to read a light-hearted and Boston-centric account of the history between these two franchises, please click here).
But as compelling as all the historical storylines are, they won’t have any impact on the outcome of this series. Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Red Auerbach, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar all have played key roles in the history of this rivalry, but none of them will have any say in who wins the 2008 NBA Championship.
Boston swept both games between the two teams during the regular season. (For an interesting analysis of those games — particularly regarding Boston’s approach to slowing the seemingly unstoppable Kobe Bryant, please click here). Things have changed since then. Most notably, that the Lakers have replaced Andrew Bynum with Pau Gasol at center, an upgrade no matter how well Bynum played before his injury.
Perhaps most interesting, however, is that the two teams — the league’s best throughout the season — have traveled very different roads in the postseason on their way to this spot.
For their part, the Lakers have stepped up their level of play since the playoffs began. They dispatched a seemingly disinterested Denver Nuggets team in the minimum four games in the first round; needed six to close out the Utah Jazz in the second round; and most recently sent the defending champion San Antonio Spurs home in five games. Bryant took over the Spurs series, justifying the Most Valuable Player award he won for his performance throughout the regular season.
The Celtics, on the other hand, have been surprisingly inconsistent in the postseason. After amassing 66 wins during the regular season — only nine teams have won more games in any NBA season — Boston needed the full seven games to beat the overmatched Atlanta Hawks and the one-trick pony that is LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. They righted the ship a bit in the Eastern Conference Finals, closing out the Detroit Pistons on the road in six games.
For those reasons as much as how well the Lakers are playing, the Celtics have gone from favorites to underdogs in the last few weeks, almost incomprehensible for a team that had the kind of regular season they did and that has home-court advantage for the Finals.
Here’s the thing about the Celtics, though: When they’ve absolutely had to have a win, they’ve gotten it. Game 7 against Atlanta was over almost before it started; Boston won in a laugher. Game 7 versus Cleveland was a tighter contest, but the Celtics never trailed on their way to a five-point victory. After they lost at home for the first time in the post-season, Boston answered critics who said they couldn’t win on the road by taking Game 3 in Detroit in the very next game.
Consistency is of higher value than inconsistency, but the thing about a best-of-seven series is that you don’t have to play well for seven games to win — just for four. The Lakers have been far more consistent over the last month and a half than the Celtics have, but Boston has shown that it is still able to play like the team that we saw all year. That version of the Celtics is one capable of slowing the Lakers juggernaut, at least this year. For that reason, the pick here hasn’t changed. Celtics in 7.
Los Angeles Lakers
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by Hayden Alfano