Clearly, the National Basketball Association finals starting here Monday match the league's two most deserving teams.
The defending champion Boston Celtics, with the league's best regular-season record, will play the Los Angeles Lakers, who have the second-best mark. The Lakers also were particularly strong late in theseason and have dominated their opponents in the playoffs.
There are a number of intriguing questions. Will the series will take on a Tortoise-versus-Hare look in more than one aspect? Can Boston defuse the Los Angeles fast break? Can the Lakers withstand the Celtics' physical play? Will the Celtics, hobbled by assorted injuries in the postseason, be able to hand out that punishment sufficiently?
"All I keep hearing about is how L.A. wants us, how they can taste it," said Boston Coach K.C. Jones, whose team won in a seven-game series a year ago. "I guess it's time to start playing."
On the surface, momentum would appear to belong to the Lakers. The team won nearly 90 percent of its games in the final two months of the regular season and averaged over 130 points in compiling a 11-2 record over Phoenix, Portland and Denver in the playoffs. In the final game of the Western Conference finals against the Nuggets, Los Angeles scored 153 points.
But such rolls can be deceiving, as the Philadelphia 76ers can well attest. After sweeping the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern semifinals, the 76ers, with a full week off to prepare, went nowhere against Boston, losing in five games. The Celtics, meanwhile, struggled earlier in the playoffs, being extended by both Cleveland and Detroit.
Some believe those earlier battles have better prepared Boston for final-round pressure. The situation was reversed last season. Boston entered the finals at home after sweeping the Bucks. The Lakers beat Phoenix in a tough sixth game on a Friday and had to travel to Boston to start the finals against the Celtics on Sunday. The result of Game 1? The Lakers won, 115-109.
The defensive schemes should favor the Celtics, supposedly the more physical of the two teams.
The Lakers were not strictly a run-and-gun team in blowing through the finesse teams of the West. Part of the credit for Los Angeles' big numbers rightfully belonged to its defense, in particular a variety of three-quarter and half-court traps used throughout the playoffs.
Still, the Lakers' opponents were all hurting in the back court. Phoenix was without all-star Walter Davis, Portland had only recently gotten point guard Darnell Valentine back into the lineup and Denver's Layfayette Lever had arthroscopic knee surgery just prior to the Lakers series.
Both 6-foot-4 Byron Scott and 6-9 Magic Johnson have the size and quickness necessary to make the traps work against Boston guards Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson, both 6-5. If those two have difficulty, Boston might have Larry Bird handle the ball to help alleviate the pressure.
Defensively, the Celtics were highly successful against the 76ers by getting Ainge to double-team down low against center Moses Malone. The ploy worked because Philadelphia's Andrew Toney struggled with his outside shot and Malone never has been a great passer.
Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar can pass, particularly to Johnson and Scott, who know how to rotate away from that defensive pressure. In addition, Scott is shooting better than 60 percent in the playoffs, many of those shots taken from the outside.
In the front court, both Bird and center Robert Parish are playing with sore elbows. Cedric Maxwell has struggled following knee surgery late in the season. If those three aren't at their best, the Lakers should have an edge up front with such reserves as Larry Spriggs and Mitch Kupchak providing muscle and Bob McAdoo adding scoring.
Individual matchups will provide some fascinating sights because of the strengths of the assorted players.
Bird, for example, has said that the Lakers' Michael Cooper is the player who defends him best. But Cooper is a substitute for the Lakers. Who guards Bird at the start of the game? Bird might be too savvy for either James Worthy or Kurt Rambis; perhaps Johnson will be the answer.
Which Celtic will try to stop Worthy, who's made 70 percent of his shots in the playoffs and averaged 22 points against Boston in last season's finals? If it's Bird, do Rambis and Boston's Kevin McHale resume a confrontation that spiced up the finals last year? McHale's flying tackle of Rambis in Game 4 may have been single play most responsible for spurring the Celtics to the title.
Scott against Ainge also provides a wonderful matchup. Both are expected to deliver much of their team's outside scoring and provide defensive help when the ball is passed inside.