Yes, I’m fully aware Boston’s no shoo-in for this year's NBA finals. Orlando (18-6) is right on the Celtics’ (20-4) tail for best record in the East and beat the C's a month ago in Beantown. Cleveland, boasting both the King and the Shaqtus, is a threat to anyone.
The Lakers, for that matter, can’t guarantee a ticket, either, with Denver (18-7) and Dallas (18-7) showing serious growth in the offseason.
And yes, finally, it’s far too early in the season to judge two clubs from different conferences. Injuries, for one, can change a team’s trajectory in mere seconds. Ask Kevin Garnett.
But if the C’s (and by "C’s," I mean KG) stay healthy; and if Sasha Vujacic continues to ride the bench in Los Angeles; and if Ron Artest keeps himself out of trouble; and if Rasheed Wallace doesn’t get booted from the league; and if Andrew Bynum’s knee stays intact for an entire season … then luck might just fall again in favor of the greatest rivalry in the NBA.
At which point, it might seem, the Lakers would be the hands-down favorites. After all, they're the defending champions, Kobe Bryant is finally coming of age and discovering that his teammates really can score, Artest has joined the team as its only true defensive stopper (Kobe apologists, please don’t tell me he qualifies — he’s a less consistent defender than Eddie House is a shooter).
But whittle this series down to matchups, and the answer might not be so simple.
Point guard: Rajon Rondo vs. Derek Fisher
This doesn’t merit much discussion. Rondo bests the elder Fisher in points, assists, rebounds, steals (Boston’s floor general leads the NBA in that category with 2.6 per game) and field goal percentage (and this one isn’t even close: 54 to 40). Plus, Rondo improved in the one area where Fisher used to hold a distinct advantage: jump shooting.
Celtics get this one.
Shooting guard: Ray Allen vs. Bryant
Love ya, Ray, but Kobe’s winning this matchup every time. Allen is 34 years old and seems to clam up in the playoffs. Bryant is 31 and getting better with each year — shooting a higher percentage (48 percent this season), passing more, rebounding more, getting in the lane for steals. And now his supporting cast is the best it's been since Shaq left town in 2004.
Lakers, no doubt.
Small forward: Paul Pierce vs. Artest
Pierce, for sure, wins the battle of the stat sheet: 18 points and 48 percent shooting for The Truth, compared to 12.9 and 44 for The Insane Guy.
But Pierce has also taken the head-to-head: In a season split between Houston (Artest’s home last season) and Boston, Pierce averaged 20 points, seven boards, four dimes, two steals. Ron-Ron? Sixteen, five, 2.5 and 2.5, respectively. Pierce, in other words, isn’t quite as frustrated by Artest’s staunch defense as some other opponents (like current teammate Kobe) have been.
It's not a clear-cut call, but the Celts get this one.
Power forward: KG vs. Pau Gasol
No doubt about it, Ostrich Man comes to play against Boston. His split against Garnett and the C’s last year: 22 points at a 60 percent clip from the field, 8.5 rebounds, two blocks, a steal and four assists.
But Garnett’s line in that two-game season series is just as impressive: 19 points on 69 percent shooting (insanely accurate), 7.5 boards, two blocks, a steal and two dimes. KG also had 13 rebounds and 18 points in the 2008 Finals, where he got the better of the Spaniard.
Calling this one is a case of "any given game" — it's a draw.
Center: Kendrick Perkins vs. Bynum
Do you want offense or defense? That very well might decide which of these two you take. Perk, while he’s improved vastly on the offensive end (12 points per game, 65 percent shooting this season), is still a stopper first who likes to bang in the paint.
Bynum, while he’s learned some low-post defense, is a scorer first, with more range than his counterpart. He’s posting 17 points per game, with an impressive 8.8 boards to boot.
Again, a draw.
What the matchups tell us, in other words, is that there’s no clear favorite in terms of talent. Throw the subs in, and it’s much the same: Sheed vs. Lamar Odom; House/Tony Allen vs. Shannon Brown; Marquis Daniels (when he’s healthy) vs. Adam Morrison/Luke Walton. There are a lot of toss-ups in that bunch.
What a Celtics-Lakers series would come down to, then, is who can hit the big shot at the end of the game, and who can play better on the road (if the playoffs were to start today, the C’s would have home-court advantage).
While L.A. has really just one option (Kobe) in clutch time (and if anyone says, “What about Fisher?” c’mon, that was one time), Boston has three: Pierce from the elbow, Ray from 3 or Rondo on the drive.
And while L.A. has barely tasted the road this season (4-2), Boston has already proved it’s the best away team in the league, sitting pretty at 12-1.
Hit your shots at the end of the game and sneak a couple of wins on the road. If the matchups are even, and those are your deciding factors, the Celts in seven doesn’t seem like such a far-fetched notion — even this early in the season.