You’re not supposed to put the cart before the horse, I’ve been told, and it’s probably equally unwise to put the NBA Finals before training camp, preseason, an 82-game regular season and a grueling Eastern Conference playoff schedule. But if you’ll indulge me for just a minute, this could make for an interesting exercise.
If the Celtics find themselves in the Finals again this June, matched up for the third time in four years with the mighty L.A. Lakers, do you like their chances?
Out West, the general consensus is the C’s have as good a chance as any.
A panel of basketball media minds in Southern California gathered this week at ESPN Los Angeles to share their opinions on the following question: Which Eastern Conference team has the best chance to beat the Lakers in a seven-game series?
And resoundingly, the experts sided with the men in green.
Out of 13 sportswriters polled, three selected the newly assembled Miami Heat and one went with the Orlando Magic. The other nine said the Celtics, Eastern Conference champions in two of the last three years, had the best shot at dethroning the Lakers. Panelists picking the C’s included ESPN’s J.A. Adande, L.A. Times beat writer Mark Medina, and the article’s author, Brian Kamenetzky of ESPN.com.
The Celtics are an odd choice to some — it’s Orlando that’s won 59 games in each of the last two seasons and looked on paper like the East’s best team. Miami is getting some buzz about possibly winning 70. The Celtics are a 50-win team that’s likely to only decline further with age.
And yet, when it comes to taking on the purple and gold when June rolls around, the Celtics are in a league of their own.
Postseason basketball, the Finals especially, is all about matchups. You don’t always go with the roster that looks the best on paper — you go with the team that can best combat the other’s strengths.
The Heat will be a great team next season, but they won’t be equipped to beat the Lakers. They’re led by three stars — LeBron James, who’s neutralized by a physical, defensive-minded forward like Ron Artest; Chris Bosh, who’s good but Pau Gasol is better; and Dwyane Wade, who’s one of the game’s best but no match for a driven Kobe Bryant locked in with his eyes on the prize. The Lakers have the perfect components to stop everything Miami does.
As for the Magic, everything of course begins and ends with Dwight Howard. But how dominant can Howard be against Los Angeles, where a veritable trio of seven-footers — Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom — will be following his every move? The Magic’s other big weapon is their 3-point shooting, but Kobe and Artest contest the 3 very well, and defending the perimeter happens to be one of the Lakers’ strengths as a team. The Lakers did away with the Magic in five games last June, and there’s no reason they couldn’t do it again.
Then you have the Celtics.
In 2008, the C’s emerged victorious in the Finals because Paul Pierce fought his way to victory, working hard for every point and propelling Boston to its 17th banner. But the C’s are deeper than that. They have plenty more ways to beat you.
Rajon Rondo is a matchup nightmare for anyone, but especially a Lakers team that lacks a young, athletic point guard to chase him around.
Ray Allen is a world-beater when he gets hot — look no further than the eight 3s he knocked down in Boston’s Game 2 win over L.A. in this year’s Finals.
The Lakers have an incredible depth of capable bigs, but the Celtics are the last team in the NBA to worry about that. L.A. has Gasol, Bynum and Odom; Boston has Kendrick Perkins, Jermaine O’Neal, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Glen Davis, Luke Harangody and Semih Erden. Phil Jackson has a trifecta; Doc Rivers has an army.
The Celtics have everything they need to beat these Lakers. In 2008, they did it, and in 2010, they nearly did it again. In 2011, they’ve got a better chance than anyone.
Now the only challenge is getting there. That’s the easy part, right?