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An Offensive Prediction's Demise

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Sunday, June 15, 2008; Page D01

LOS ANGELES Most of us were seduced by the glamour, by Phil Jackson's championship rings, by Kobe Bryant's celestial talent, by the Lakers' ability to run and shoot so beautifully. That's certainly why I picked the Lakers to beat the Celtics when the NBA Finals began, because of Jackson, the best coach in the game, and Bryant, the best and most valuable player.

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The vast majority of us should be ashamed for being so blinded by the glare of the Lakers because it was all right there in front of us even before the championship series began. The Celtics aren't just better than the Lakers; they're superior. Whether it happens here Sunday night or Tuesday in Boston, the Celtics are going to win the franchise's 17th NBA title and first in 22 years.

The Celtics are going to win because of stunningly obvious reasons, because they have more good players, because they're bigger and stronger up front, because they play infinitely better defense, because they kill the Lakers on the boards. We knew this coming into the series, in part, because Jackson told us all season long what the Lakers' areas of vulnerability were.

In conversations in January and again in March, Jackson was asked if this edition of the Lakers looked to him like a championship team. After all, Jackson has had enough of them -- nine as a head coach. Very candidly, Jackson frowned both times and said his team would be championship material only if it learned to rebound and play much better defense. The Lakers got better in those areas incrementally, but not dramatically.

What they did all season, fabulously, was score. Bryant learned how to consistently involve his teammates and reduce his own individual shooting riffs, and the Lakers averaged 109 points a game. It was offense worthy of Magic Johnson's and Pat Riley's old "Showtime" Lakers -- sort of "Showtime Lite." The Denver Nuggets, even more disinterested in defense than the Lakers, were no match for Los Angeles in the first round of the playoffs. And the Lakers, to their credit, were able to figure out how to get the ball in the basket against two very good defensive teams, the Jazz and Spurs, in the next two rounds.

But neither of those teams plays the defense the Celtics do, not individually and not collectively. We are reminded every so often that defense still wins championships. It's how the Giants beat Tom Brady and the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl. And in this case, the relationship between offense and defense is even more obvious.

The Lakers don't play defense nearly well enough to stop the Celtics from doing whatever they want.

And the Celtics play such withering defense the Lakers can't do anything they want.

All this was knowable, seeable. But offense is what we celebrate, so merrily we went with predictions, some of them quite dismissive, that the Lakers would beat the Celtics, in five, in six, in whatever. The logic was completely flawed, even if you limit the analysis to the front-court matchups.

With young Andrew Bynum unable to play because of his continued knee issues, the Lakers' front court consists primarily of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. But they aren't the most aggressive players even in optimum conditions, and there's nothing optimum about those two having to go against four absolutely great Celtics players who are bigger, stronger and more aggressive: Kevin Garnett (the NBA's defensive player of the year), bruising Kendrick Perkins, long Leon Powe and a professor of defense, 39-year-old P.J. Brown. It's been a mismatch.

The Celtics' bench, which includes Powe and Brown, has been superior. Yes, the Lakers' Sasha Vujacic had a great Game 3, scoring 20 points on 7-for-10 shooting. But the Celtics countered that by getting 18 in Game 4 from James Posey, who helped the Miami Heat win a championship just two years ago with his play in reserve.

We looked at the Celtics needing seven games to beat Atlanta, seven games to beat Cleveland and six games to beat Detroit, and figured any team that needed that many games to simply reach the NBA Finals wasn't good enough and didn't have enough energy left to win. Instead, we should have concluded the Celtics had been battle-tested in ways the Lakers hadn't as they waltzed through the first three rounds of the playoffs. It was obvious from the first few minutes of Game 1 that the Lakers were interested only in a quick knockout, that they didn't have what it takes (primarily, defense) to slog through a 12-round war with an opponent who was perfectly happy to grind it out.

There was one rather unforeseeable development that has benefited the Celtics and it started in the opening series of the playoffs: the emergence of Paul Pierce.

Rarely do we see a player, in his 10th season, go from very, very good to great. And Pierce has done that, leading the Celtics in Game 7 against the Hawks, Game 7 against the Cavaliers, and Game 6 on the road in Detroit. Ray Allen's slump seems like it was months ago, and Garnett has had 14 double-doubles in the playoffs. But it's Pierce who has played through his knee injury, Pierce who has hit most of the critical baskets, and Pierce who went to Coach Doc Rivers at halftime of Game 4 and asked to guard Bryant.

A team that wants to challenge Bryant, a team that has a player who is willing to do it and then proves himself able, has the stuff of which championships are won. For the Celtics, and Lakers, it's all over but the shouting.


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